What will it take to stop us killing ourselves on the roads?

Another Christmas holiday season, another wave of Australian families impacted by the tragedy of our – increasing – road toll.

ROAD SAFETY EXPERTS have expressed concern about a spike in accidents and fatalities this year. From January to November 2016, 1185 people died on Australian roads – 75 more than the same period last year.

Between 23 December 2016 and 3 January 2017 – considered to be the ‘holiday season’ from a road safety perspective – 40 more people had died, up from 34 in the same period last year.

These numbers are even more remarkable when you consider that motor vehicles are safer than they’ve ever been (although we’ve written recently about whether car safety standards are actually as effective as they could be).

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Road deaths have however been dropping fairly consistently over the past decade or so, thanks in no small part to well-designed seat belts, air bags, crumple zones, and even headrests.

Most of these are ‘passive’ safety features, designed to keep you inside the vehicle and as protected as possible, in case of an accident.

A really interesting area of development is the range of ‘active’ safety features, that are increasingly becoming standard on newer vehicles.

And there are many: from anti-lock brakes, forward-facing cameras, collision and lane departure warnings to electronic stability control and traction control, even blind-spot warnings and reversing cameras – these are all the ways in which your car is working to stop you from having an accident in the first place.

Yet, we continue to die on our roads.

It could be argued these advanced safety features lead to a level of comfort and complacency among us drivers. Leading us to take risks and push the limits harder than we might if we weren’t so confident in our cars.

Are these safety features not working? Or are they just not enough to mitigate our silly behaviour behind the wheel?

When it comes to the reducing the road toll, it seems that ideas are in ample supply, but solutions are proving harder to find.

Do we need to limit the age of vehicles on our roads? Countries like Paris and Japan ban older vehicles for reasons of reducing pollution in their major cities, but this might have the added benefit of improving the net safety level of vehicles on the road.

While speed continues to feature in reasons for the road toll, it’s a popular argument to increase speed limits. The reasoning is generally that this will reduce frustration and fatigue by getting people where they want to go, more quickly and efficiently. It’s a suggestion that has even been backed by some studies.

Still others suggest our focus on speed as the cause of accidents is flawed; that in fact, it comes at the cost of focusing more on driver education and training as well as other factors such as fatigue and driver distraction. This approach usually comes with the suggestion of introducing regular testing and re-testing of drivers throughout our lives – not just at the beginning the end of our driving careers – as well as stricter penalties and greater enforcement of road rules.

And that doesn’t even touch upon the argument of whether our driver training and testing is good enough to begin with. Mandatory defensive driving courses and independent tuition (so young drivers don’t learn their parents’ bad habits …) are often mentioned.

Finally, there are many who suggest the culprits aren’t the humans behind the wheel at all. Poor quality roads, poor signage, poor lighting and questionable road design decisions can place even the most competent driver at risk.

When we talk about roads toll statistics, it’s easy to write-off those numbers as reasonable given the number of people and vehicles on the roads. But try telling that to the families and friends of the 80+ more people killed on our roads this year – it’s a sentiment that Victoria’s famed Transport Accidents Commission (TAC) captures well in this recent campaign.

The TAC and many of its interstate counterparts have a ‘getting to zero’ approach to road fatalities, and they reckon it’s achievable.

But last year’s Benchmarking the Performance of the National Road Safety Strategy report, released by the Australian Automobile Association in October, found the National Road Safety Strategy is already running around four years behind in some states, in its mission to reduce road deaths and injuries by 30 per cent over ten years.

So, it looks like whatever we’re doing is not working – at least, not as dramatically as hoped.

I know when I’ve had a couple of near misses in my driving life (from which I and everyone else fortunately emerged unscathed) it was undoubtedly due to driver distraction.

Not using the mobile phone, shouting at the kids or fiddling with the radio, as common as these distractions are. But rather, being lost in my own thoughts – angry, upset, worried or stressed – and sadly not focused on what I was doing.

While I accept my responsibility for the silly mistakes I’ve made, this does highlight to me that our behaviour behind the wheel and the outcomes we experience don’t occur in a vacuum.

They’re the result of an enormous combination of factors, ranging from the kind of day we’ve had and how we’re feeling, to the type of vehicle we’re driving, to the reason we’re driving at all.

I’m not sure how we legislate to address that.

Over to you – how do we address our road toll? Can we really get to zero, or do we have to accept a number of fatalities as part of the deal?

Jane Speechley

Jane Speechley

Jane Speechley is an experienced freelance writer whose natural curiosity means she knows enough about cars to hold a decent conversation. While happily admitting her Toyota 86 makes promises her street driving can’t quite keep, she’s relishing the opportunity to review some of Australia’s most interesting new vehicles from an ‘everyperson’ perspective. She’s on a mission to understand and explain how all those features and gadgets actually impact upon your driving experience. http://www.charismaticcommunications.com.au