Rising road toll 'dark cost of economic boom'

2012 will go down as a year of carnage on Australian roads, with the booming economy to blame.

Provisional figures put the national toll to the end of November at 1200, up from 1155 at the same time last year.

The result bucks a three-year downward trend and seriously threatens Australia’s bid to slash the national toll by 30 per cent by 2020.

Road safety experts believe the higher body count may be the dark cost of a resurgent national economy. Australia’s economy boomed in 2012 compared to 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011. The road toll hit record lows in that time, and researchers say the fact that the economy was struggling was no coincidence.

Dr Mark King, a senior researcher at Queensland’s Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety, said a strong economy meant far more cars and trucks were on the road.

“Also, if people have more discretionary income, they spend it on things like entertainment and end up travelling during times of the week or day where you’re more likely to be involved in an accident,” he said.

However, the vexed issues of speeding, drink-driving, fatigue, distraction and inexperience continue to claim many lives, regardless of economic conditions. Shoddy rural and regional roads are also to blame.

The further a person drives from a capital city, the greater their chance is of dying behind the wheel.

One in three Australians live outside metropolitan areas but two out of every three fatal crashes occur on regional roads. It has been that way for decades, the consequence of poorly designed roads, long distances and inappropriate speed limits.

The federal parliamentary secretary for transport and infrastructure, Catherine King, has defended the Gillard Government’s attitude to road safety and the amount of money it spends on the scene of most deaths - rural and regional roads.

“When we look at the vast distances Australians travel, to ensure every single road is safe would take billions and billions of dollars and take large-scale investment and that’s why (the government’s approach) is not just about the roads, it’s about the vehicles that are driven on them, about the speeds allowed on those roads… and equally, it’s about driver behaviour,” she said.

Ms King said any halt to the road toll’s downward trend was of serious concern but said it was too early to tell what was behind this year’s spike.

After a promising drop early in the year, the national road toll went awry mid-year and hasn’t recovered.  January, May, June, August and September were particularly deadly months on the road.

While Victoria and South Australia have been spared an overall increase in deaths and injuries, the other states and territories have had a horror year. Road deaths had jumped by about 4.5 per cent in Queensland by the end of November, six per cent in NSW. The Northern Territory, Tasmania and ACT are all five fatalities up on last year. 

Dr King, who is researching the correlation between drink-driving crashes and the mining boom, said this year’s increase was unlikely to be an early indication of an upward trend.

“Although we’re looking like having an increase this year, it (the national toll) will still be lower than several years back,” he said.

“To some extent, this may be a rebound.”

However, he and other road safety experts say bold strategies are needed to further slash the toll, such as reducing speed limits and legal blood-alcohol concentration levels and installing alcohol interlocks in more cars.

Dr King said the benefits of reducing speed limits on country roads were obvious.

“The main problem is it is something which is not very popular,” he said.

“There are benefits to be gained from lower limits but whether or not they’re politically feasibly is a matter for politicians.”

Ms King warned against revising the National Road Safety Strategy, which was adopted last year in a bid to cut deaths and injuries by 30 per cent by 2030, before its first scheduled review in 2014. It might take several years before the benefits of measures contained in the strategy were realised, she said.

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