Improving road safety: It’s down to all of us

by Professor Raphael Grzebieta, Adjunct Associate Professor George Rechnitzer and Keith Simmons, Transport and Road Safety (TARS) Research Centre, University of New South Wales (UNSW) Sydney

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At the Transport and Road Safety (TARS) Research Centre, researchers are focused on the steps we can take – as drivers, pedestrians and infrastructure planners – to make our roads safer for all users. Here, three of the centres leading researchers reflect on the Australian view on road safety this century, and outline their views on how we can reduce road injuries and fatalities.

In the last few years, Australia’s road fatalities have spiked. Questions are being asked: “What is causing the spike, and how can we get back on track to meet our 30 per cent fatality reduction target by 20201?”

In 2002 the two lead authors of this article published two opinion pieces in Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper: Deadly Designs: We Can Build Roads That Eliminate Deaths and Designs for Death. Much has happened since those days, as detailed by Mooren, Grzebieta and Job2. Australia now has a design philosophy based on safe system principles, which has been adopted internationally by the World Health Organisation, United Nations, World Bank and the OECD3.

The basis of the Safe System Approach is to recognise that humans make errors and as a result, the road system should be designed to be more forgiving of those errors. That is to say, the system should eliminate or mitigate the consequence of human errors and even if a crash is inevitable, the system should be designed so as to reduce crash severity to survivable limits.

This philosophy means that responsibility for road safety is shifted from an emphasis on road users being responsible for road safety, to a greater responsibility for road system designers and managers to build safeguards into the system that compensates for human error, in order to prevent or mitigate injury-causing crashes. Despite this, as an Australian society, we continue to overlook clear safe system solutions that we could adopt immediately, if we had the political will to do so.

Our Herald Sun editorials opposed the perception at that time that there were “no more silver bullets” when it came to road safety. Instead, we firmly believed “this view is wrong, and that there are still significant opportunities as a number of ‘silver bullets’ are yet to be loaded, let alone fired. Investing in the design and manufacture of human error tolerant roads and vehicles will introduce cost effective, permanent and sustainable road safety”.

While considerable road safety gains have been made in the intervening years, we believe that the opinions we expressed, now a decade and a half ago, still hold true to some extent today.

The Safe System Approach requires all elements of the system to be addressed, in order to harvest potential road safety gains. Safer people, travelling in and around safer vehicles, on safer roads and at safe speeds are all critical elements required to achieve deaths and road trauma reductions.

Despite the importance of having safer people, we still have drivers failing to comply with speed limits and to adjust their vehicle’s speed to the prevailing driving conditions on the road, distractions from mobile phone and other in car gadgets, driving and riding under the influence of alcohol and drugs and more. Combined with an unforgiving, human error intolerant road infrastructure system, these have been the most frequent causes of vehicle occupant and vulnerable road user deaths in Australia. The laws of physics, and specifically the impact speeds experienced by the human road users themselves, dictate whether a road user will survive a crash or not.

For pedestrians, being struck by a car at 60km/h is the equivalent impact energy as jumping out the window of a four storey building; for a car, crashing at 100km/h into a hard object is the same as driving off the roof of a ten storey building. These crashes are not survivable for the respective road user. The role of the road engineer is to design and install infrastructure that can forgive those errors; to reduce impact energy so crashes are survivable. An errant vehicle impacting a roadside pole or tree at high speed is generally not survivable. The same errant vehicle skidding across a cleared zone, or glancing off a wire rope barrier, or a W beam barrier, is generally survivable. Of course, managing speeds is the key to minimising crash energy in the first place.

Hence, the system must be designed so that the energy exchange during the crash is managed appropriately. That is, preferably, for pedestrians, the impact speed should not exceed 30km/h; at intersections the impact speed of a car smashing into the side doors of another car should not exceed 50km/h; and for head-on or run-off the road crashes into hard objects, the impact speed should not exceed 70km/h.

How can we design better roads?

So what needs to be done now to make crashes survivable in Australia?

For roads, installing median and road-side barriers, tactile median and roadside line marking that will wake drowsy drivers up, and improving curve delineation to reduce run-off the road crashes, are all examples of crash countermeasures readily available to reduce casualties.

For roads where there are no wide centrelines, median or roadside barriers, speeds should not exceed 80km/h. It is wrong to think the distances in Australia are so vast that drivers will never reach their destination at a lower speed. The reality is, some road users will never reach their destination when travelling at dangerously high speeds.

For intersection crashes, installing roundabouts to control vehicle speed and directional impact forces, or installing well-designed traffic signalisation, will reduce vehicle occupant casualties in the inevitable crashes. Regardless, the speed limit at an uncontrolled intersection (not-signalised or no roundabout) should not exceed 50km/h.

For high pedestrian activity areas, reducing speed limits to 40km/h or less, building self explaining roads that necessitate driving at a lower speed, installing good lighting and signalised or raised pedestrian crossings, installing pedestrian fencing to guide pedestrians to a highly visible crossing point or to prevent pedestrians crossing hazardous roads, and installing appropriate visual warnings for drivers are all examples of readily available countermeasures that will reduce pedestrian casualties.

It’s important to note that the road builder should not be in this alone. There are laws that could be introduced tomorrow that would have an immediate effect on reducing road casualties.

We’d like to see the following measures put in place:

  • Introduce point-to-point speed cameras for all vehicles on all major roads
  • Require any new cars sold into Australia to have Intelligent Speed Assist, alcohol interlocks, seat belt reminders to all seats, front seat interlocks and autonomous emergency braking systems
  • Prohibit the sale of any new cars with an ANCAP safety rating of three stars or less into Australia
  • Require 0.2 per cent blood alcohol content for all motorcyclists (at 0.05 motorcyclist fatality risk is 600 times that of a car driver with zero blood alcohol)
  • Ban pay by per trip systems for truck drivers that encourages speed and fatigue
  • Lockout mobile phone use (texting and messaging) while driving in cars and trucks

Imagine an Australia where the 1,300 or so people killed and around 35,000 seriously injured or permanently disabled could survive their crashes, with no serious or permanent injuries.

We must all work towards zero together to make this a reality. We have a shared responsibility.

There has been a recent spike in road deaths in Australia, moving against the overall downward trend. (Source data: BITRE, 2017, Chart Australasian College of Road Safety).

There has been a recent spike in road deaths in Australia, moving against the overall downward trend.
(Source data: BITRE, 2017, Chart Australasian College of Road Safety).

For any further information or Safe System training please contact Professor Grzebieta at [email protected]

1 Australia’s National Road Safety Survey Strategy 2011 – 2020 sets a reduction target of 30% less of both fatalities and serious injuries, than the baseline results of 2008 – 2010 (ACT, Australia’s National Road Safety Survey Strategy 2011 – 2020, http://www.atcouncil.gov.au/documents/atcnrss.aspx

2 Mooren, L, Grzebieta, R, Job, S.Safe System – Comparisons of this Approach in Australia. Proc. Australasian College of Road Safety Conference “A Safe System: Making it Happen!” Melbourne, September 2011, http://acrs.org.au/wp-content/uploads/Mooren-et-al-Safe-System-%E2%80%93-Comparisons-of-this-Approach-in-Australia.pdf

3 OEDC, Towards Zero: ambitious road safety targets and the safe system approach, 2008, Organisation for EConomic Co-operation and Development (OECD): Paris, France. http://www.internationaltransportforum.org/jtrc/safety/targets/08TargetsSummary.pdf, http://www.internationaltransportforum.org/Pub/pdf/08TowardsZeroE.pdf

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