Killer trees not to blame

I was browsing through the website of the Australian Road Assessment Program (AusRAP), as you do, and came across some finger pointing on the issue of road crash fatalities which said: “Roadside killers like trees, poles and embankments can turn a minor crash into a severe one.” I hate to sound like an NRA supporter, but trees don’t kill people, drivers do.

AUSRAP header

Despite the AusRAP slugline, unintended driver error, excessive speed and alcohol or drugs remained the three most frequently recorded major factors in fatal crashes from 1990 to 2009. (Coronial processes, information compilation and coding mean there is a delay of a few years in these stats being released).

The terms “sometimes” and “often” are hard to critique with statistics, but AusRAP has somewhat of a vested interest in keeping the spotlight on infrastructure since its purpose is to assess and report on the safety of roads across the country.

Trying to engineer our way out of problems, such as rising road tolls, is a malaise that is both ineffective and disempowering.

The bottom line is that Australian drivers need better training and to be held to a higher accountability of road skills. There are three factors in any discussion of the road toll: drivers, vehicles and roads. AusRAP rates drivers and vehicles about equally, but only half as important as roads in reducing fatalities.

Yet the proportion of fatal crashes classified as ‘non-collision, vehicle ran off road into object’ increased from 27% in 1990 to 37 per cent in 2006 and unintended driver error, excessive speed and alcohol or drugs remained the three most frequently recorded major factors in fatal crashes throughout both decades.

I’m not a fan of tables in stories, but take a look at these trends:


Factors such as alcohol and drugs; driver fatigue; driver error, distraction or impairment have all increased. Excessive speed as a major factor has increased from 19 to 33% and other risk taking (drag racing, tailgating) has doubled. These increases are significantly greater than the increase in vehicle defects or road conditions as factors. You can’t idiot proof the road.

I don’t say this as a holier than thou driver. Although I avoid drinking and driving, I am just as likely to make an error as the next person, and no one has checked up on my driving ability for, dare I say it, decades. I got my licence when I was 17 and the world was a different place, yet all I need to do to maintain my licence is to keep paying the annual fee.

If we were serious about reducing this attrition which takes an average of four lives a day and costs the community about $17 billion dollars we would give more value to driver training and education. And not just physical skills, but training people to respect fellow road users; to see the holding of a licence as a privilege not a right; and to be more sensitive to the blink of an eye, life-changing consequences of a moment’s inattention or impatience.

The cop out is always that the electorate wouldn’t tolerate such changes, but research into community attitudes consistently shows that the public aren’t the fools they are taken for – they recognise the key factors in road deaths and they say they would be happy with the measures needed to reduce the toll – and those measures shouldn’t be focused on chopping down killer trees.


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