Inert bureaucracy behind failure to put a brake on road trauma

Sydney Morning Herald

Friday 3 January 2003

The state's road safety administration desperately needs a shake-up, writes Harold Scruby.

Be prepared for politicians talking loud and long about law and order between now and the March state election. But few, if any, will mention lawlessness on the roads. In NSW, there are about 100 murders a year. Yet 572 died on the roads last year and more than 5000 were seriously injured.

Apart from the pain, grief and suffering, road trauma costs NSW more than $5 billion a year but those able to have an impact on the road tolls remain silent or are in retreat.

The NSW parliamentary Staysafe committee uncovered how those in authority were shirking their missions. Its 1998 report is worth quoting at length: "The Staysafe committee was particularly surprised at the admission by senior government road safety officials that they were likely to fail to achieve the Premier's year 2000 road safety targets. In 1995, the Premier committed his Government to achieving road trauma targets of fewer than 500 deaths and fewer than 5500 serious injuries by 2000.

"It is both extraordinary and disturbing that Roads and Traffic Authority senior road safety executives have now apparently accepted that these targets will not be reached, and do not seem to perceive a political or even an ethical imperative that they should reach and better the Premier's targets. In the view of Staysafe, there is a need to wake up and shake up the road safety administration in NSW to ensure that appropriate and sufficient policy and program development is in place and in operation to challenge a complacency among road safety administrators that they are doing enough and need do no more."

Four years later and the RTA's failed 1995 commitment to the Safest Roads in the World by 2000 has been quietly forgotten and replaced by Road Safety 2010 - to make our roads the world's safest, with a new commitment to halving the road toll. Instead the 2002 NSW road toll, at 572, is 9 per cent higher than 2001 and 14 per cent above the 2000 target.

Yet the 2002 Victorian road toll of 397 is down 11 per cent on 2001, the Melbourne metropolitan road toll the lowest ever. Victoria also experienced a record low in pedestrian deaths - although its Christmas holiday toll rose slightly. But in overall terms, why is there such a disparity in tackling road tolls in Australia's most populous states?

First, the Victorian Government made its Transport Accident Commission responsible for road safety education and gave it the role of co-ordinating all the government agencies. In NSW, the RTA has that responsibility. Second, the Victorian Government last year introduced a range of tough measures under new, responsible driving legislation. They included: removal of magistrates' discretion for drink-driving offences and a mandatory loss of licence for the statutory periods; automatic, on-the-spot, loss of licence for repeat drink-drive offenders, first offenders with blood alcohol contents exceeding 0.15 and for probationary and learner drivers whose BACs exceed 0.07; a 3kmh discretionary tolerance for speeding (in NSW it's 10kmh or 10 per cent, whichever is the lower); automatic loss of licence for one month for exceeding the speed limit by 25kmh, six months for between 25kmh and 35kmh and 12 months for more than 45kmh ; a default 50kmh urban speed limit throughout the state. Also, speed/red-light camera and infringement collection management has been outsourced, putting police back on the beat.

How different in NSW where Staysafe has been neutered, the NRMA is rudderless and the Road Safety Advisory Committee was disbanded more than three years ago, as was the Road Accident Research Unit more than a decade ago, leaving the RTA with a monopoly on road safety.

I believe the RTA to be the prime reason behind the failure to achieve the Premier's targets. The RTA is a giant, inert bureaucracy, vigorously resistant to new ideas and change. Its primary role is not safety but to build and maintain roads and to move traffic efficiently. Thus, the RTA is saddled with a ready-made conflict of interest between safety and efficiency.

A government truly serious about reducing the toll would move such a co-ordinating role to the Motor Accidents Authority and establish a Road Safety Ministerial Task Force, with a committee of independent road safety experts advising and reporting directly to the responsible ministers.

Most politicians remain apathetic about road trauma. Until parliamentarians accept that much of the behaviour on NSW roads is criminal and inject road safety policy into their law-and-order lexicon, as well as make fundamental changes to the structure and strategy of road safety management, the crime and carnage on our roads will continue to worsen.

Harold Scruby is chairman of the Pedestrian Council of Australia Limited.