Editorial - On the road again

The Sydney Morning Herald

Wednesday 10 January 2001
Governments have attempted to address the road toll since the 1950s when it first attracted serious notice as a cause of death in modern society. Inquiries have been established, strategies implemented. There have been notable successes. Having peaked at 1,384 deaths in 1978, the NSW road toll declined to 556 over the next two decades as policies and money were directed at the issue. Unfortunately, backsliding has also been a constant. The NSW toll rose to 603 last year, the highest in five years.

The Pedestrian Council of Australia, outraged by what it calls the failure of programs to consistently stem the carnage, last week planted 603 white crosses outside the Hyde Park War Memorial. It was a poignant reminder that the number of people killed on NSW roads last year surpassed the 501 Australians who either died or went missing during the Vietnam War. As authorities ponder the cause of the rise in the annual road toll, the matter has been given further sad urgency by unexpectedly high Christmas holiday road fatalities that saw 38 people lose their lives on the State's roads.

In response to this wake-up call, the Minister for Transport, Mr Scully, has announced a ministerial task force to review the causes of the holiday road toll and report on new measures to reduce death and injury. The task force will finalise its work before the next holiday period at Easter. However, preliminary police evidence on the manner in which the 38 died provides an interesting window onto the effectiveness or otherwise of road safety campaigns: 19 (50 per cent) died in accidents where speed was a factor; 10 (26 per cent) were not wearing seatbelts; 11 (29 per cent) died when drivers were affected by fatigue; six (16 per cent) involved drivers affected by alcohol. Obviously, road safety messages on speed and seatbelts have failed to impact while the drink-driving campaign has been effective.

One of the ministerial task force's main terms of reference will be to consider whether people who accumulate 12 or more demerit points for driving offences should be required to pass a road test before getting their licence back. It will also consider if the present $114 fine for failing to wear seatbelts is sufficient in light of the Christmas holiday accidents. Both are appropriate areas of investigation. Another would be extending the double demerits point system that comes into effect during holiday periods to more traffic offences.

The task force is to be comprised of police, the Roads and Traffic Authority, the NRMA, the Motor Accident Authority and community representatives. As governments and bureaucrats have been responsible for unsuccessful road safety campaigns, there are understandable concerns among community groups that the task force is too bureaucratically skewed. However, its membership seems broad enough to provide an overall view of the problem. It is important to avoid opting for ad hoc measures that have typified past responses to road safety.

603 white crosses outside the Hyde Park War Memorial