Editorial - The fatal road

The Sydney Morning Herald

Saturday 30 December
Most weeks, 11 people in NSW - friends, neighbours, family members and workmates - start a motor journey they never finish. The road toll is a stark and sad fact of life. Yet most Christmas holidays, the road toll rate climbs inexorably. Nobody seems to know exactly why. Or what to do about it. Almost in spite of a graphic television advertising campaign warning of the dangers of road travel during the Christmas holidays, the NSW road toll this year is the nation's highest, 24 as of late yesterday. Appalling as this statistic is, the State's annual road toll is the worst in five years, yesterday reaching 6oo. Police suggest the same culprits - speed and drink drivers - are involved once more. The NSW Police's Operation Safe Arrival, targeting drivers over the Christmas break, has so far charged more than 14,000 people around the State for speeding and more than 500 with drink driving.

The road carnage that usually takes place over the Christmas holiday runs counter to long-term trends in NSW since the law requiring the compulsory wearing of seatbelts by adults was introduced in August 1971. Subsequent legislation, including the seatbelt law being extended to children, random breath testing and double demerit points system on long weekends, saw the road toll more than halved over the three decades from 1978's peak of 1,384 to 556 in 1998. It rose again slightly to 577 last year. Another 26,000 were injured in accidents last year. Apart from the suffering of the victims and their loved ones, the Roads and Traffic Authority (RTA) estimates that the financial cost to the community is more than $2 billion.

Taking heed of community concerns, the Can Government attempted to attack the road toll from its earliest days. In 1995, during his first term in office, the Premier, Mr Can, committed his Government to making "NSW roads the safest in the world by the year 2000". He set road trauma targets of fewer than 500 deaths and fewer than 5,500 injuries by this year. With two days remaining before the end of the year, the Government's bright promise of five years ago has failed the reality test, with the NSW toll at least 100 higher than the political promise.

There have been other attempts by government to address the tragic toll. Two years ago, the Minister for Roads, Mr Scully, released Road Safety 2010, a cogent framework to save motorists' lives over the next 12 years. The plan included the introduction of a graduated licensing system, lower urban speed limits, safer vehicles and suggestions of impounding of drink drivers' cars. Statistics suggest the scheme has failed. The Federal Government, meanwhile, is targeting money on rural and regional roads. This is welcome: three-quarters of the State's fatal accidents this Christmas were in rural NSW, confirming research and anecdotal evidence that speed and country roads are a lethal combination.

The commander of the NSW Police traffic services, Chief Superintendent Ron Sorrenson, while surprised at the extent of fatalities this year, admits there are no new weapons to fight the Christmas road carnage. Meanwhile the chief executive of the RTA, Mr Paul Forward, plans interviewing motorists to discover why road toll messages, such as the RTA's graphically tragic "Summer Holiday" television advertisement, are failing to hit home: 19 per cent of the NSW fatalities during the year failed to wear seatbelts and police have indicated a large minority of peopled killed this Christmas were not wearing belts either. Two major road safety organisations, the NRMA and the Pedestrian Council of Australia, concerned at the current runaway toll, have called for an urgent summit. The chairman of the Pedestrian Council of Australia, Mr Harold Scruby, wants a ministerial road safety council established.

Until now, no study has looked at the specific issue of the road accidents that occur during holiday periods. Perhaps the State Parliament's Joint Standing Committee on Road Safety (Staysafe) could start by considering the Swedish Government's 'Vision Zero"
program that aims at eradicating road fatalities completely.

Idealistic, perhaps, but current attempts to deal with the road toll appear to have stalled.