'Lost decade' of road safety means 500 have died unnecessarily

Speed is the leading contributor in 40 per cent of fatalities and serious injuries. Nationally, about 1200 people die on the roads each year and 50,000 are seriously injured. Road safety experts are calling for more to be done to reduce speed limits, particularly in areas with vulnerable road users; and adapt speeds to suit the quality of the road and protect drivers and passengers from inevitable human errors.

A safer road system, including wire rope barriers which were later installed, would have increased the chances of the Falkholt family surviving the crash that killed the family of four, including actress Jessica, on Boxing Day 2017.

A safer road system, including wire rope barriers which were later installed, would have increased the chances of the Falkholt family surviving the crash that killed the family of four, including actress Jessica, on Boxing Day 2017. Credit:Nine

If wire rope barriers had been installed at the time that Jessica Falkholt and her immediate family died on Boxing Day 2017, they may have survived, said road safety expert Professor Raphael Grzebieta, an honorary professor at University of NSW.

"We've got to have a system which will save people from such errors, horrible driver errors," said Professor Grzebieta. It is too soon to know the details of the young man's death on Christmas morning, but experts say a high speed crash into a tree is "almost unsurvivable". Roadside rope barriers and fences reduce the risk of injury or death in a crash at high speed to just 15 per cent. Pedestrians are the most vulnerable to injury, with the risk of a fatality five per cent if hit by a vehicle travelling at 28 km/h.

This rises to 10 per cent at 36 km/h, 50 per cent at 57 km/h, increasing to 90 per cent at 78 km/h, research by University of NSW's Professor Jake Olivier found. "Even an impact speed of as low as around 30 km/h is equivalent to what you would experience if you fell off the roof of your house," said Professor Olivier. The past 10 years had been a "lost decade as far as road safety is concerned", the new president of the Australasian College of Road Safety, Martin Small, said on Thursday.

"We have been going in the wrong direction," he said. "And the more we know about catastrophic and serious injuries, the worse it gets. "It is fair to say there is a frustration about the rate of pace of change.'' To reduce fatalities, Mr Small said speed limits needed to match the safety of the road and its users.

He also wants to see the government introduce new technologies, such as speed-limiting devices and advanced emergency-braking systems. The European Parliament voted this year to make a range of new technology mandatory in new vehicles from May 2022. This included intelligent speed assistance; alcohol interlock installation facilitation; driver drowsiness and attention warning; advanced driver distraction warning; emergency stop signal; reversing detection; and event data recorder ("black box").

Road safety experts have been frustrated by delays since Dr Crozier, chair of the National Trauma Committee, Royal Australasian College of Surgeons and Adelaide University's director of the Centre for Automotive Safety Research, Professor Jeremy Woolley, delivered a damming report on the federal government's road safety plan 2011-2020 nearly 18 months ago. The report recommended that at least £3 billion in new and additional funding be spent on a new road safety fund. Dr Crozier said without having a "sequestered" annual fund of £3 billion to spend making our roads safer the country would "spend 10 times that on deaths and injuries in the next decade".

Dr Crozier said his review had shown that in recent years the national road safety plan had only reduced road deaths by 10 to 15 per cent, which meant at least 500 - using a conservative estimate - had died who otherwise would be alive. Loading In a letter to road safety experts, the Transport and Infrastructure Council (which represents federal, state and local governments) said it agreed in principle, but said discussions were ongoing.

It noted that most of the 12 recommendations had been agreed, many only in principle, while only two recommendations were completed.

They were the report's recommendation to establish an office of road safety and appoint a Cabinet minister with responsibility (the Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack) and create a minister for road safety (Scott Buchholz was appointed as assistant minister).

Federal and state governments have also agreed to set a vision zero target by 2050 for all major capital city central business districts and vision zero for highways by 2030.

Julie Power is a senior journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald.

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