Road toll lesson on Pacific Highway

I have just had the misfortune to drive the Pacific Highway north of Sydney to Ballina. It is the most dangerous road in NSW, according to the NRMA.

At the time of driving double demerit points were in place. Hitherto, I have always been on the “don’t speed” side of the argument about speed cameras being revenue raisers. But there are some wider questions.

Now I think that NSW has gone too far on clamping down on speeding. In NSW you can lose your licence for three months if you are caught exceeding the speed limit during a double demerit period twice in three years, even if you are doing only 1km/h above the limit.

Sure, you do not get pinged unless you are doing at least 5km/h over. Nonetheless, loss of licence for three months is a fairly severe penalty for two minor speeding offences.

The ACT is far more reasonable. If you are less than 15km/h over the limit you only lose one point (not three as in NSW), or double that in the holiday period.

I was aware of the draconian NSW system because there has been some debate it, so I was especially careful. However, I daresay that on at least two occasions I went a few kilometres an hour over the limit. I have not had a dreaded RTA letter yet, touch wood.

The NSW draconian has several flaws. First, normally law-abiding road-safety-conscious citizens can find themselves without a licence. That is unjust and acts as a recruiting ground for opposition to other law-enforcement road-safety measures.

Secondly, it undermines national uniformity on road rules.

Thirdly, the law militates against road safety, if my Pacific Highway experience is anything to go by. The law-abiding motorist is sitting petrified behind the wheel, eyes glued to the speedometer, rather than the road and conditions. And that highway has speed-limit areas that have closer resemblance to a bar code than sensible town and country limits. A lot of the time even a diligent driver will have lost track of the speed limit as you go from 60 to 110 and back to 90 and then 70 and so on. There was even a sign that had 110 unless it was raining, then it would be 90. The sign even had a picture of large rain drops.

Herein lies one of the fundamental difficulties of road safety and traffic law-enforcement. In the past 30 years traffic authorities – faced with horrific roads tolls – have increasingly removed discretion and good sense as controls and replaced them with rigid rules.

Good management principles suggest that if you have competent and willing people, you let them get on with it and you do not micro-manage everything they do and the way they do it. And you use discretion not to be too harsh on an occasional lapse by someone who is competent and willing.

If you have incompetent people, you have to train them to make them competent. If you have people who are unwilling you have to browbeat and punish them, or even sack them. In the case of drivers, that means taking away their licences.

NSW has now got to the stage where it is applying techniques suited to the incompetent and unwilling to the competent and willing. These days, police, cameras and the points system remove discretion.

That is not the way to greater road safety.

In an ideal world we would train and educate drivers to be both competent and willing to drive safely. But it is not an ideal world. Given the terrible consequences authorities have to err on the side of force and compliance. But we have probably come about as far as we can on that front.

As the Victorian assistant commissioner for traffic Ken Lay said, “There is a group of people that will never obey the law unless, or until, they’re actually caught, put in jail, kill themselves or kill someone else. We understand that. There is this group we simply cannot get to. . . . No matter what the law is, no matter what the penalty is, there will still be people that drive at stupid speeds, drive full of grog and full of drugs.”

He could add “walk” to that. About 28 per cent of pedestrians killed are drunk. About a quarter of dead drivers were over the limit. And P-platers are three times more likely to be killed.

When Lay says there is a group “we” cannot get to, he presumably means police. But the incompetent and unwilling must be got to by wider society because they do so much damage.

Australia has a low road toll by world standards. Indeed, the ACT’s toll per population is the lowest or near the lowest in the world. But it is still far too high.

Road deaths should be freakish and unusual, not commonplace. Every year around 1600 people die and 10 times that are seriously injured.

Some suggestions. We borrow from pilot training, given that air safety is so much better than road safety. Driver training has to be longer and harder and taken in steps from solo, daytime and low-powered cars through to nighttime with passengers and more powerful cars. We put the limits on the licence, just like auto and gear licences and car and truck licences.

Further, we change the standard on speedometers. They should go from 0 to 130km/h, not 0 to 220km/h. That would remove the hoons’ glamour at recording huge speeds. It would also add a sense of approaching the upper limit much sooner for all drivers.

And then, do we look at inconvenient but effective alchometers that require a five-second breath test and lock up the car if the driver fails?

In any event, some outside-the-square thinking is needed because beating up the generally competent and willing will not work.

2 thoughts on “Road toll lesson on Pacific Highway”

  1. Crispin Hull is right on the money, again, in berating our bureaucrats and police for focusing on speeding as the major cause of road deaths. It is nothing of the sort.

    In fact, it is not speeding that kills but the sudden stop at the end.

    As Hull writes, lateral thinking is required, together with a rational acceptance that, on world scales, we have a very good record, and perhaps drivers should be complimented rather than constantly criticised by authorities.

    On a related topic, if the police seriously believe that speeding is the root cause, then issuing warnings to drivers doing 71km/h in 40km/h zones is not a good precedent, regardless of how high-profile the driver.

    As someone with a long driving history, who has been booked doing 88km/h on a straight road with an 80km/h speed limit, one wonders whether there are rules for some and rules for others.

    Charles Ironside, Wanniassa

  2. Crispin Hull’s suggestion (Canberra Times Saturday 10th January “New Ideas…road toll”) for a new approach to road safety other than doubling demerit points for drivers is already underway. Unfortunately as Crispin found on his recent holiday the messages to the drivers often obsure the work done elsewhere. The National Road Safety Strategy recognises that a compehensive systems approach to reducing death and injury from road crashes is necessary. Safer roads, identified by a star rating system, AusRAP, safer cars again identified by a simple star rating, ANCAP, and of course safe drivers, currently targeted through a wide range of national and local initiatives, are three key areas. In addition there are many new technologies which either assist or prohibit drivers from making simple mistakes and also can be used to prohibit criminal driving behaviour. Alcohol interlocks are used widely in Sweden in commercial vehicles, intelligent speed adaption is now under assessment in Australia and technologies such as electronic stablitity control is at last being introduced across nmany new car models.
    Hopefully the new National Road Safety Council and Infrastructure Australia’s investment in safer road system will lift the rate of introduction of these new ideas and programs, so driving will become more pleasant, safer and less focussed on a punishing demerit system.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *