Minister says Australia's road safety is slipping

By: Steve Skinner, Photography by: Marcel Voestermans

Too much enforcement and not enough spending on regional roads, newer trucks and car driver education, minister argues

Minister says Australia's road safety is slipping
Transport minister Darren Chester says Australia is slipping behind comparative nations in terms of investment in new vehicles.


Australia has become complacent about the road toll, fears the federal minister for infrastructure and transport .

Darren Chester says there needs to be more emphasis on light vehicle driver education, newer trucks and regional roads.

Chester, the member for Gippsland in Victoria, was delivering a keynote address at the Australian Trucking Association’s 2016 conference the Gold Coast which wrapped up on the weekend.

"I’m worried that we have become a little bit too complacent about the road toll," Chester says in what was a largely non-partisan speech.

"I am worried that we have almost become accepting of the fact that there is a price to pay for a modern transport system and that we’re prepared to pay that price in the order of about 1,200 lives per year.

"We don’t talk about it enough at the federal level, at the state level, and we don’t seem to be pursuing the next generation of improvements to reduce road trauma in our nation.

"If there was an Olympic Games and they were handing out medals for road safety, I’m afraid Australia wouldn’t be on the podium at the moment, and we used to be world leaders.

"We’ve proven in the past we can do better and we need to do better in the future.

"If I’m going to be critical of governments around Australia I think they have focused a little bit too much only on safer drivers, on the enforcement side of the equation.

"We have talked about driver behaviour, we’ve done a lot of TV advertising campaigns, we have the coppers out on the roads, a lot of enforcement activity, but I think governments have actually shifted too much of the responsibility and focused solely on drivers, without taking their own responsibility in terms of a safer road environment and in terms of making sure we have safer vehicles on the road."

Chester says in the latter half of last century huge road safety gains were made thanks to such measures as seat belts, speed limits and random breath testing.

"But in recent years I think we haven’t been able to grasp the next generation of reductions in road trauma."

It was good news that the heavy vehicles crash rate is down despite a much increased freight task, but there were still 190 people who lost their lives in 170 fatal crashes involving heavy vehicles last year.

Nevertheless, he points out that in more than 80 per cent of crashes involving heavy vehicles, it was not the heavy vehicle driver who was at fault.

"I think there’s a missing link in our road safety approach at the moment," Chester says.

"We need to get smaller vehicle operators, motorcyclists and cyclists learning more about how to interact with heavy vehicles on the roads."

As well as investing in safer drivers of all sorts – including truck drivers – "we also need to invest in safer vehicles".

He says to that end Australia needs to reduce the average age of the Australian heavy vehicle fleet, which is running at nearly 14 years for trucks.

"Again, we’re slipping behind comparative nations in terms of our investment in new vehicles," he says.

He has had discussions with truck industry representatives on the issue, and they have put forward a range of options – "some of which I think have a great deal of merit" – about providing incentives to transition to newer vehicles.

Referring to the federal government’s $50 billion infrastructure plan, Chester says that, as a regional member of parliament, "I’m determined to make sure that a fair share of that infrastructure investment program makes it to the actual regional roads where so many of you operators are driving on a daily basis".

Work on Queensland’s Bruce Highway has already seen the annual fatality rate drop from 55 to 17, from "quite simple engineering solutions" such as new rest areas, overtaking lanes and widening the gap between oncoming vehicles in the middle of the road.

Chester says the Pacific Highway duplication is estimated to save 1,000 lives by 2040.

The Coalition’s commitment to road safety "actually increased" with the abolition of the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal (RSRT), because savings will be directed to the National Heavy Vehicle Regulator (NHVR).


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