War on the road toll

Today Tonight Channel 7

BROADCAST DATE: Monday 5 January 2004
REPORTER: Anna Coren

Would defensive driving courses cut the road toll?

Campaigners say if the road toll was a list of battle casualties, the government would lose power. Would sending young people to compulsory driver training courses improve safety?

The statistics are frightening. If you're aged between 17 and 20, you're three times more likely to have a serious road smash.

Lucy Singleton, 20, is one of those statistics. Driving home from work one night she was hit by a four-wheel drive.

Behind the wheel was a 17-year-old who'd had his licence for just 11 weeks. He survived but Ms Singleton did not.

Ms Singleton's uncle, Peter Richard-Herbert, believes her death could have been prevented.

"I think if the young guy driving the four-wheel drive had been educated, yes it probably could have saved her," he said.

"I mean they do sex education in schools, it's part of life, why don't they teach people to drive properly over a period of years?

"Take the allure out it so it is just something you should have a pride in, learn not to break laws and be sensible."

Harold Scruby has made campaigning for road safety his life. He says we don't take our youth road toll seriously enough.

"We really should have a war cabinet treating this as a war rather than something that just happens every year," he said.

Senior Sergeant Jim Pendergast works for the NSW Highway Patrol. He says police have booked about 27,000 people for speeding over the holidays

He admits young drivers are a major concern but warns against generalisations.

"We can't fall into the trap of lumping everybody into the same boat," Senior Sergeant Pendergast said.

"But there are a group of recidivists out there who just don't care and they're the people who we want to target."

The latest statistics from the Australian Transport Safety Bureau show why that group needs special attention. In 2003, 28 per cent of those killed on our roads were drivers aged under 25.

It's even more shocking when you consider the same group holds only eight per cent of all licences.

While those figures will undoubtedly prompt calls for tougher laws and more police, experts are now shifting their focus. They say education and technology are the new ways to save young lives.

Harold Scruby says the Victorian system of 'hidden' speed cameras is effective.

He claims the covert system has helped cut the state's road toll by 15 per cent and should be implemented across the country.

He'd also like to see small speed cameras placed inside reflectors on the road surface.

"There's a complacency, there's an apathy about the road toll," Mr Scruby said.

"There's a belief that it can only happen to someone else and I think there's so much we can be doing with the new technologies that are emerging."

He says seatbelts and random breath testing were "silver bullets" for road safety and predicts technology will lead to more ways of reducing the toll.

"There's some fantastic new systems emerging," Mr Scruby said. "I don't think you'll be able to speed in five to 10 years."

Mr Richard-Herbert says that once the technology is in place, the laws need to become a whole lot tougher.

"I think what we've got to do is use demerit points to get these bad drivers off the roads and use them very, very cleverly and carefully," he said.

"It's extraordinary, we get double demerit points for not wearing seat belts and speeding, but for no other offences."

Acting Prime Minister John Anderson says the Federal Government is working on a strategy to make defensive driving courses compulsory for all drivers.

He says young people should attend a one-day defensive driving course after they receive their licenses - with particular focus on driver attitude.

But as the debate continues on how to save young lives, those who know first hand the devastation of those "statistics" hope that if nothing else, their pain can be a lesson to everyone else.

"It's simple," Mr Scruby said. "Protect your children, teach them how to drive."