How Australia reduced road death toll

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Paramedics deal with the aftermath of a late-night collision in which four people died and five were injured, one critically. Photo: Matthew Jordaan

The number of deaths on South African roads is staggering. With about 14 000 people killed on South African roads each year the cost of this tragic harvest is impossible to calculate. There are war zones in other parts of the world that offer better odds of survival.

I hesitate to point to Australia's experience in curbing the impact of road trauma. Frankly, I believe our experience is far from the international benchmark and we have a lot of room for further improvement.

However, I know that many South Africans do cite the improvement in road safety that has been achieved in Australia over recent decades as a possible model and there may be some lessons to be learned.

The South African experience does have to be viewed in context. Around the world, approximately 1.2 million people will be killed in road crashes this year. More than 90 percent of these road fatalities will occur in the world's poorest countries and the African continent shows the highest levels of road deaths per 100 000 population. Indeed, the World Health Organisation projects that without action to change current trends, by 2030 road trauma will increase dramatically and rise from ninth to fifth on the list of leading causes of death worldwide.

DECADE OF ACTION

In response to this global epidemic, the UN has proclaimed a Decade of Action for Road Safety from 2011 till 2020. The Decade of Action must result in tangible outcomes and I remain hopeful that it will provide a rallying point for setting ambitious targets and for co-ordinated action on road safety.

Currently, the fatality rate on the roads in South Africa is 27.5 deaths per 100 000 people, each year. While no level of road deaths is acceptable, a target to halve this current level of fatalities by 2020 is realistic. I know my colleagues at the AA in South Africa have urged the adoption of this target and the measures to implement it. If achieved, it could save the lives of 20 000 South Africans who don't need to die needlessly between now and 2020.

TAKING ROAD SAFETY SERIOUSLY

In Australia, we currently suffer around 5.8 deaths per 100 000 people each year - down from a peak of 30 in 1970, which is when we can say Australia started to take road safety seriously. The number of road deaths in Australia has reduced from 3798 in 1970 to 1308 over the past year - despite increases in population and vehicle use.

This progress has been the result of a range of initiatives including road improvements, safer vehicles, as well as behavioural and enforcement programmes targeting drunk driving, seatbelt wearing, fatigue and speeding.

There is no silver bullet to addressing the road death toll and it cannot be solved overnight. Road safety initiatives require support from all levels of government, as well as a range of stakeholders including road users, media, police, healthcare providers, schools, local government, vehicle manufacturers, employers and the wider community.

ATTITUDE CHANGE

Importantly, while there are always going to be exceptions, there has been a significant change in broad community behaviour and attitudes. Early campaigns to change behaviour were confrontational and often used "shock" advertising with slogans labelling drunk drivers as "bloody idiots" and graphic video images of road crashes and the resulting trauma to pound home the message.

Equally, the improvement in road safety outcomes in Australia has come at a price, financially and socially. Australians have had to accept tougher regulations, road rules, vehicle standards - and tough enforcement measures have been a key part of the solution.

The "pain" of a fine or loss of licence demerit points is far preferable to the impact of loss of life, or serious injury, and today many more Australians understand that bending the rules on the road can trigger consequences.

SMARTER SOLUTIONS

Looking to the future there is an increasing need to look for smarter and more cost-effective solutions to underpin the planning and investment required to meet our needs for continuing improvements in road infrastructure.

This affects not only the ability to travel between locations but the design and constrction elements of the road can have a large influence on the likelihood and severity of crashes. Factors such as the quality of the road surface, line marking, width of the road shoulder, width of road lanes, the opportunity for safe overtaking of slow-moving traffic and separate pavement areas for pedestrians all help to improve the safety of road users.

COURAGE AND COMMITMENT

Physical barriers between lanes of traffic travelling in opposite directions, removal or protection of obstacles close to the roadside, such as poles and trees, can all dramatically affect the safety of the road system.

While reductions in road trauma require the support and participation of many stakeholders, governments are ultimately responsible for setting the policy agenda, providing leadership and driving the change.

Without this courage and commitment, gains in road safety stall or are eroded.

The most encouraging thing in South Africa is that it seems the public want to do something about the alarming number of road fatalities. The trauma, pain and suffering that stem from road crashes are ultimately preventable. - Cape Argus

Andrew McKellar is the executive director of the Australian Automobile Association.


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