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Sydney Morning Herald - Thursday 16 November 2006

The more they fiddle, the longer the road toll stays the same

Harold Scruby

IN 1995 the then premier, Bob Carr, and his roads minister, Carl Scully, proudly launched the ambitious Road Safety 2000 program, boasting that NSW would have the safest roads in the world with fewer than 500 deaths and 5500 injuries a year. When 2000 came around, the annual road toll exceeded 600.

Scully quietly dumped Road Safety 2000 and launched Road Safety 2010, aimed at saving 820 lives by 2005 and 2000 lives by 2010. Yet by the end of last year the road toll in NSW had not fallen below 500.

Now, not only has the Government moved the goalposts but changed their shape as well. It has sidelined the universally recognised measurement of "deaths per hundred thousand of population" and instead committed to reducing "vehicle crash deaths per 100 million vehicle kilometres travelled". This introduces variables that will artificially change the figure. Oil price rises, for example, will force drivers to travel less and the subsequent decline in kilometres travelled will lead to a fall in the number of road deaths, even though there has been no change in road safety trends.

In 2003, the year of the most recent data available from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau, the NSW rate of motor vehicle crash deaths per 100 million vehicle kilometres travelled was 0.89, the second highest of all Australian states and higher than the overall Australian rate of 0.81.

There are other questionable practices. In NSW, for example, the Roads and Traffic Authority and police have a cosy arrangement known as the enhanced enforcement program. Last year the RTA gave the police about $8 million to pay for the overtime police incurred while conducting road safety enforcement operations on themes such as speeding, drink-driving and seatbelts.

Such payments compromise the independence of police and fetter their discretion. The payments effectively enable the Minister for Roads to dictate where, when and how police operate. The effectiveness of these operations is not independently audited or evaluated. And, naturally, police are reluctant to criticise the RTA because the overtime payments are attractive, particularly when their base salaries are relatively low. This program should be directly funded by Treasury and not the RTA.

The consistently high NSW road toll can in part be blamed on the Police Association of NSW due to its opposition to modern work practices and technologies that would reduce road trauma significantly and improve the safety of its members.

At the Country Road Safety Summit in Port Macquarie in 2004, it was agreed the RTA would undertake a trial of unmarked vehicles equipped with mobile speed cameras to catch speeding truck drivers. The trial was an overwhelming success.

But it was soon stopped by the police union due to concerns its members might lose jobs. As a result, in NSW, highly trained and skilled police officers are required to sit, robotically, in their vehicles.

Victoria, which has the lowest road toll in Australia, has swiftly embraced and outsourced digital red-light speed camera technology and mobile speed camera operations, helping to put police back on the beat. NSW continues to lag.

The tragic deaths of police officers during roadside operations, such as occurred last weekend, can be avoided. The answers are simple: stop police from standing on the road wherever possible. Abandon hand-held radars. Update, combine and transfer all fixed and mobile speed camera and red-light camera operations to the RTA. And develop mobile electronic devices like the RTA's variable message signs, which can direct motorists to pull over for breath tests.

Victoria consistently leads Australia with the lowest road toll, this year approaching 6.3 deaths per hundred thousand, significantly less than NSW's 7.6, which will result, yet again, in deaths topping 500 this year.

Victoria has had random roadside drug testing for more than a year. It has minimal tolerances on its speed cameras. Its magistrates have lost the discretion to acquit drink-drivers. The state is embracing 40kmh (and slower) zones through major shopping areas. It has also about 86 digital red-light speed cameras which commensurately book motorists for running red lights and speeding, while NSW can manage to have only a decade-old camera in one of every four possible red-light camera locations.

The NSW Government can do much more. But after 12 years of procrastination and complacency, the legacy is an annual road trauma bill of $6 billion and immeasurable - and avoidable - pain and grief.

Harold Scruby is the chairman of the Pedestrian Council of Australia.