A long, winding road to end the carnage

Sydney Morning Herald

Monday 8 January 2001
Just how much are Australians willing to pay to curb the death toll on the nation's highways, asks Simon Chapman.

THE concern about the holiday road toll invites a good many questions. Before any are addressed, the community needs to discuss the fundamental matter of what level of road toll should be considered too high, and its indelicate corollary of what annual road carnage the community would be willing to accept.

The idea that the road toll will inexorably inch closer to zero seems implicit in most of the outrage over the toll for this holiday season - and the annual tally - as is the notion that anything worse than the year before is self-evidently a national disgrace, regardless of population growth.

A zero road toll is a concept for science-fiction writers with visions of collision-proof cars tracked onto an electromagnetic national grid. Even Luddites like the Amish who eschew cars are occasionally killed by bolting horses and drays.

International comparisons give some idea of what lower road death rates are possible. Among the 25 OECD countries, between 1987-1997, Australia's rate of road deaths ranked 10th, at 9.5 per 100,000 of the population. That is behind Iceland (5.5) Britain (6.3), Sweden (6.1), Finland (8.5) and Japan (8.9). At the other end lie Portugal (28.9), Greece (20.9), and the United States (15.7).

We could strive to reach Iceland's level, although with a total population of only 280,000, mostly in the capital, there is hardly basis for comparison.

Several of the low-toll nations such as Britain and Japan also have among the world's highest rates of public transport use, promoted by far-sighted infrastructure development and cultures that demand and are willing to pay for its development.

Western European rates of public transport use in cities of more than 250,000 people are more than double those in Australia and nearly six times those of the US, which has a road toll among the highest in the developed world. Even Italy, with its reputation for road anarchy, has lower pedestrian and motorcycle death rates than Australia.

But Rome's urban rail, for example, carries 9.1 million annual passengers per line mile, compared with Sydney's much-lamented low usage. (The Department of Transport was unable to supply me with the comparable figure).

If more people use public transport, fewer will use private cars. Unless dangerous drivers somehow disproportionately self-select out of using trains and buses, this means that we might expect a corresponding reduction in their ventures onto roads.

But would the Australian community be willing to support, through tax, the major expenditure that would be necessary to significantly improve access to public transport? If not, then the recipe for further improvements to me road toll must be drawn from added doses of driver education, threats and disincentives, and harm reduction through car and road engineering.

These have clearly worked to some extent up to now: Australia leads the OECD in reducing its road toll (38 per cent between 1988 and 1997).

Theoretically, of course, we can imagine the annual road toll being zero and anyone who has ever lost family or friends would probably agree that almost anything that could have saved those lives should have been done.

No price seems too high when it's your child or partner who has been killed or maimed. But when such an implied vision is addressed at the policy level, the community has a right to debate its acceptance of liberty-restricting and punitive preventive measures like speed fines, traffic calming and car safety modifications.

While such debates are always generated by reference to the road toll, they are often resolved by the ascendancy of other values that reveal plainly that for all the public anguish about road carnage, the community often has higher priorities.

Consider head injury, among the leading causes of death and lifelong brain damage in vehicle crashes.

The logic of extending the argument for compulsory motor cycle helmets to car occupants is obvious.

Just as injury-conscious motor racing has long required drivers to wear helmets, why not cars on roads too? Acting from wholly paternalistic precepts, we inconvenience motorcyclists, arguing that the decision to risk one's head being slammed against a road obstacle at 60 km/h cannot be a rational and informed decision. The State therefore makes the decision for motorcyclists by making helmets mandatory.

So why not car occupants, given the imagery of heads as bursting watermelons that we have all been exposed to in motivational advertising? The resounding unpopularity of such a proposal and the ridicule it would bring to any proponent would reflect the overwhelming rejection of a major increment in car user safety over the importance of keeping one's coiffure intact.

Equally, Bob Carr's rejection last week of the Pedestrian Council's bullbar ban proposal may owe as much to electoral sensitivity as to his reading of the estimated, relatively small number of lives that could be saved by such a move.

Opponents of a ban on bullbars in the city engage a mental calculus that puts their concerns about damaging their cars ahead of the perceived unlikelihood of cutting pedestrians in two.

Perceptions of risk are all about perceptions of control: bullbar owners feel that, being impeccable drivers, the risk of them hitting a pedestrian is infinitesimal, whereas the risk of a roo jumping out of the bush at Killara is presumably perceived as higher.

Just as seat belts, random breath testing and suburban traffic calming were all vigorously opposed by the public and many politicians, so is it likely that bullbars in urban areas will one day be popularly reviled as viciously anti-social.

The years ahead are likely to see refinements of this debate, with city-registered vehicles opting for bullbars being hit with huge registration fee disincentives. The Pedestrian Council's Harold Scruby may have his historical status upgraded from public nanny to public health visionary.

There is a vast science of road injury prevention, resplendent with controlled experimental trials of different strategies, international comparisons and instructive longitudinal data. While the conclusions of this continue to be debated at the margins, the road toll will not fall further without further impositions on all of us.

As with gun control, the road toll debate draws heavily on the insult and resentment felt by those who like to drive fast or own lethal weapons, but who have impeccable safety records. "We've never hurt anyone . . . restrictive laws are unjust it's somebody else's problem."

This has all the moral force of a law-abiding passenger being insulted at having to walk through an airport metal detector.

The real questions that remain all come back to the balance that must always be struck between the cost of saving further lives and the price we are willing to pay to do so.

Simon Chapman is professor of public health at the University of Sydney and chairman of the Australian Consumers Association.