Editorial: Road toll deterrence ineffective

The Canberra Times

Wednesday 2 January 2002
The Canberra Times Wednesday 2 January 2002


Road toll deterrence ineffective

THIS Christmas-New Year we have seen heart-breaking images of people outside their destroyed homes; valuable farmland and precious bushland burnt out. More than 150 houses have gone up in smoke.

This holiday 46 people (and probably more by the end of today) have died on Australia's roads. Perhaps 10 times that suffered injury. It is a much worse toll than the bushfires, yet it has had scant attention - ironically because it has been eclipsed by the bushfires. Forty-six grieving families have lost a loved one - not a house that can be rebuilt.

There are now signs that the significant falls in the road toll achieved in the late 1980s and early 1990s are not continuing. Although 2001 with 1749 dead was better than 2000 with 1817, the large reductions of a decade ago are not apparent. Victoria had a horror year on the state's roads last year - 451 deaths. It was the worst result since 1991 when there were 503.

The ACT had 18 last year compared with 16 this year - statistically not significant. In NSW, the toll will be at least 537 (some of these figures will get revised up or down if people die as a result of injuries or are found to have died of heart attacks which resulted in a crash). The NSW toll is better than last year's 603, but still well above the pious hope expressed by the Government six years ago of having fewer than 500 dead.

It is clear a new approach is needed, especially at holiday time. Last year after NSW's high holiday toll, the NSW Government ordered action. A task force was set up which duly reported. But all we got was the same old double-demerit-point plan in NSW with a special emphasis on seatbelts, and the ACT lamely following suit. The result is a failure. Twenty people died on NSW roads. True, none died in the ACT, but given the NSW result it cannot be put down to the double-demerit scheme.

The scheme has run its course. It is full of anomalies. A driver can lose six demerit points for neglecting to fasten his seatbelt after backing out of a driveway (affecting no-one else's safety), yet another driver can take unbuckled children in an unregistered trailer and not lose any points.

Indeed, the whole demerit system needs review. A driver doing 61km/h in a 60km/h zone loses three points, so does a driver doing 74km/h - but the safety difference is immense given the force of impact goes up exponentially with speed. Moreover, the same penalty applies whether conditions are good, or dark and raining.

There is a fair degree of anecdotal evidence to suggest that the inflexibility of the system and its contradictions and injustices are getting otherwise pro-law-and-order motorists off-side. It is failing to target drivers who deliberately offend and who can be seen daily accelerating violently, squealing wheels, taking corners too fast, driving too close to the car in front and generally behaving unsafely, yet it regularly pings the mild inadvertence of a driver doing 83km/h in an 80km/h four-lane, divided-road zone.

Demerit points are worthwhile, particularly in getting repeat offenders off the road and warning drivers of the prospect of a lost licence, but a review of their application is needed. The scales need to slide more evenly and drivers should lose fewer points for first offences and more for later ones of the same category. They should focus on offences that affect safety.

And then money should be put into more police visibility and better roads.