Roads & Infrastructure Magazine talks to iRAP’s Rob McInerney about the Inquiry into the National Road Safety Strategy 2011–2020, its recommendations and what needs to be done to improve the standard of road safety in Australia.
In September 2017, then-Federal Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Darren Chester commissioned an inquiry into improving the effectiveness of Australia’s National Road Safety Strategy (NRSS) 2011–2020, amid fears of complacency around road safety within the community.
“I’m worried that we are too accepting of the fact 1300 Australians will die on our roads and tens of thousands will be injured this year,” Mr. Chester said at the time of the inquiry’s announcement.
“Road trauma has an enormous social impact and in economic terms, road injury costs our nation an estimated $30 billion per year. I don’t accept that as a price we have to pay for a modern transport system. The re-evaluation of the existing strategy is about setting the national agenda for years to come.”
Mr. Chester appointed Associate Professor Jeremy Woolley, Director of the Centre for Automotive Safety Research at the University of Adelaide, and Dr. John Crozier, Chair of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons’ Trauma Committee, to co-chair the inquiry. International Road Assessment Programme (iRAP) Chief Executive Officer Rob McInerney and Lauchlan McIntosh AM, President of the Australasian College of Road Safety, assisted Assoc. Prof. Woolley and Dr. Crozier as Principal Advisors.
The aims of the inquiry were to review the effectiveness of the NRSS 2011-2020, but also identify key factors involved in the road crash death and serious injury trends, identify issues and priorities for developing a post-2020 national road safety strategy and a 2018-2020 action plan and advise on arrangements for managing road safety and the NRSS.
One year on from its commissioning and the results from the independent National Road Safety Inquiry were presented to the Australian Government this past September and it included 12 recommendations that aim to address the costs and impacts of road trauma.
Roads & Infrastructure Magazine talks to one of the inquiry’s Principal Advisors, Rob McInerney, about the recommendations made and the next steps that need to be taken to improve Australia’s road safety system.
Widening the scope
For Mr. McInerney, prior to commencing the inquiry, the then-Infrastructure Minister’s words rang true for him concerning the significance of the task at hand.
“Darren Chester, who originally called for the inquiry, was the driving force behind it. He had the courage to get the inquiry started and told us before we started to ‘be bold’. He captured the spirit of most regional communities and councils and really understood the personal tragedy of road trauma out there and that no-one should die on our roads – our current performance is just not good enough,” Mr. McInerney says.
“So, with the leadership from the Minister, we took on the challenge of understanding the true impact of road trauma across Australia and what is truly needed to make a significant reduction in death and injury.”
When the NRSS was released in 2011, it outlined a target to reduce death and injuries by 30 per cent through to 2020. The independent June 2018 quarterly Benchmarking of the NRSS shows that all states and the Northern Territory are on track to miss these targets, with only the ACT set to meet its fatality reduction targets. During 2017 alone, there were 1224 deaths on Australian roads, according to Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics statistics.
Mr. McInerney says the initial NRSS target required a massive step change within 10 years, which hasn’t happened. “I think this is a wake-up call. The key message for me is there is no other engineered environment where we tolerate that kind of death and injury,” he says. “We don’t tolerate that kind of loss of life in building design, rail network operation or the air industry, why would we with roads?”
The inquiry forecasts that failing to improve the nation’s current road safety situation will result in 12,000 people killed and 360,000 injured at a cost of $300 billion by 2030 alone.
“By looking forward we can understand the true scale of death and injury in the years ahead. The individuals involved and our country cannot afford this preventable burden on families, companies and the economy. The solutions are there – whether they be better management and accountability, the right level of resourcing, improved road design, improved vehicle safety or better road use,” Mr. McInerney says.
“All we need is the leadership, stimulus and scale to make it happen.”
The Inquiry’s 12 recommendations (see sidebar) outline where action is needed at a number of different levels, including for government and industry.
“One of the most important things is national leadership and accountability for road safety in Australia, and that must start with the Federal Government,” Mr. McInerney explains.
Much of the financial burden from road trauma will come from the significant injuries inflicted on people using our roads – brain injury, quadriplegia, limb fractures and internal injuries are just some examples that require long-term care and costs to the health system and insurance sector. Mr. McInerney says the cost is in the billions and is often buried deep within our health, welfare and insurance system many years after the crash.
“The simple fact is we are grossly underinvesting in road safety at the national level. There is no national leadership, split responsibilities and limited accountability that allow poor performance to be tolerated and a level of investment that is well short of the scale of the problem.”
The inquiry’s first recommendation is to create strong national leadership through the appointment of a Cabinet minister, which Mr. McInerney says is a crucial first step to reducing Australia’s road trauma.
“If you look at who’s responsible in Australia for road safety, there isn’t one person. Having one individual in charge also means they have a personal responsibility and must act,” he says.
The second recommendation from the inquiry is then to establish a national road safety entity reporting to the minister. “At federal level, the amount of resources is very low for road safety and the government has to establish an entity that is adequately resourced to deal with a problem this big.”
He says the first step required by government is to commission a governance review and engage with all the states and territories to define the ideal structure of that entity, which Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development Michael McCormack announced in October. “The establishment of key performance indicators for all priority areas of road safety action will also ensure we can measure and manage success – and take remedial action if targets are not met,” Mr. McInerney says.
All 12 recommendations made by the inquiry need the appropriate resources to support them, Mr. McInerney asserts, which is why the inquiry is also calling for a minimum $3-billion-a-year road safety fund.
“This must be new investment – it can’t just be rebranding existing expenditure. To put it in perspective, the road safety fund represents just 10 per cent of the annual cost of road trauma. Importantly the investment must be well placed and the impact evaluated. The return on investment will be high and will directly reduce the long-term costs of road trauma to government and other stakeholders. The road safety fund will create the stimulus and scale needed to reduce road trauma.”
Mr. McInerney highlights that the Federal Government already provides large investment for big infrastructure projects, but the safety performance isn’t always the top priority. “The government already earmarks $7 billion a year for transport infrastructure that has a primary outcome of reducing travel time and congestion. Ensuring that investment delivers the maximum road safety performance is an immediate priority, and the new funding needs to provide the road safety icing on top of current road infrastructure spends,” he adds.
Mr. McInerney outlines the AusRAP star rating for roads as an examplified guide here.
The global program, active in more than 90 countries, uses a star rating, which is based on road inspection or road design data and provides an evidence-based and objective measure of the level of safety which is “built-in” to the road for vehicle occupants, motorcyclists, bicyclists and pedestrians. The AusRAP programme in Australia is led by the Australian Automobile Association, Austroads and the member governments and the Australian Road Research Board. The current National Road Safety Action Plan already includes a target for 90 per cent of travel on National Highways to be three-star or better by 2020 and 80 per cent of travel on state roads to be three-star or better by 2020.
While five-star roads for all road users is the ideal outcome, and is cost-effective on high-volume roads or high-volume pedestrian and cycling areas, the organisation says governments worldwide are setting targets to maximise travel on three-star or better roads for all road users. This will see high-risk one- and two-star roads eliminated as well as higher-volume areas upgraded to three-, four- and five-star standard as appropriate, according to Mr. McInerney. “Importantly, we cannot afford to build brand new one- and two-star roads and the United Nations has reinforced this through the establishment of global standards to ensure all roads are built to a three-star or better standard worldwide as part of the UN Sustainable Development Goals,” he said.
iRAP’s Business Case for Safer Roads provides a high-level global estimate of the benefits of maximising the percentage of travel on three-star or better roads by 2030. In achieving at least 75 per cent of travel on three-star or better roads by 2030, for instance, iRAP estimates that 467,000 lives will be saved every year and 100 million lives and serious injuries over the 20-year life of treatments with $8 of benefits for every $1 invested.
“We need to ultimately leave a legacy of four- and five-star roads, but we can start to maximise travel on at least a three-star standard now,” Mr. McInerney says.
He says this approach could be crucial, particularly for local government, to ensure that the safety performance of its existing road infrastructure is maximised. A significant proportion of the road safety fund would be used to mobilised to these high-risk road networks as part of recommendations eight and nine.
“Typically, half of all road trauma is on urban, regional and local government roads. They need the capacity and resources to act and the Federal Government must provide the stimulus and scale for local government to respond,” Mr. McInerney says.
“What we require is a really targeted approach – identify the worst 100 road links in Australia, the 30 to 50-kilometre stretches of road that have above average trauma, deaths and injuries every year and bring them to a three-star or better standard.”
Using this data-driven and evidence-based approach, the government could then reduce the risk of these dangerous roads incrementally. Once the highest risk roads have been eliminated, the next worst roads in the country can be targeted. “We could then be seeing a reasonable portion of that $3 billion road trauma fund eliminate 100 of the worst roads lengths every year to 2030 and see us well on the way to meeting the vision zero target,” Mr. McInerney says.
According to iRAP’s big data resource – Vaccines for Roads – based on a 358,000-kilometre sample of roads across 54 countries, 81 per cent of roads where traffic flows at 80 kilometres per hour or more are undivided. Seventy-nine per cent of those roads also have dangerous roadsides. “With about a third of fatal crashes in Australia caused by run-off road crashes, and one in five caused by head-on crashes, simply implementing a mass-action program to make our roadsides safe and separate high-speed oncoming traffic will save many lives,” Mr. McInerney says.
One of the inquiry’s 12 recommendations is to implement rapid deployment and accelerated uptake of proved vehicle safety technologies and innovation. “Australia is now a pure importer of vehicles. Driver assistance technologies like electronic stability control, autonomous emergency braking and intelligent speed assistance are just some life-saving examples of technology that must be mandated and incentivised across the fleet. While the self-driving cars of the future will make a difference, their impact is many decades away and we must focus on the proved life-saving vehicle technologies available today,” Mr. McInerney says.
He says speed management is one intervention that works and its uptake needs to be accelerated nationwide. “Whether through effective point-to-point enforcement of existing speed limits, engineering roads to achieve desired speeds or a fresh look at urban and CBD speed limits with a safe system and harm elimination focus, there is no question that speed management is part of the solution.
“One thing that impacts every country on Earth is an unacceptable level of road trauma. There are lessons to be learnt everywhere.
“Some councils have already achieved zero road deaths in the past few years and some road sections have been fatality free following recent upgrades, such as parts of the Bruce Highway in Queensland or Melba Highway in Victoria. These case studies of success must provide inspiration for us all on the road to zero road deaths nationwide.”
For the road engineering profession, Mr. McInerney says a change of attitude is required to ensure Australia can action the inquiry’s 12 recommendations and also meet a vision zero target by 2050.
“Our design engineers design in accordance with Australian Design Standards, but we’re still delivering high speed roads that are divided by just a white line, when systems like flexible safety barriers are out there and easily available as a safer alternative,” he says. “We need a culture change where the first discussion of design engineers is about the safety standard that will ensure no road deaths. Whether that is the provision for pedestrians in CBD areas or trucks on our highways, we must debate every departure from that outcome and recognise that every life matters.
“Engineers have a no-harm ethics policy, but we are looking at more than 360,000 people who will be killed or injured on the roads we design and manage between now and 2030. We need a dramatic shift in our attitudes – we need to think about how a road can be made as safe as possible. We must challenge our current design and funding criteria and fight for the funds and the resources to make safety a priority.
“Infrastructure Australia at the moment does not have key criteria for road safety being a priority for investment and that’s an area that deserves immediate review,” Mr. McInerney explains. “Linked to the National Road Safety Action Plan, Infrastructure Australia could actively encourage safety related project proposals to lift large lengths of the Australian road network to a three-star or better standard. Likewise, the large signature projects should set the benchmark for five-star performance that a country like Australia is capable of delivering and deserves.”
Mr. McInerney says the cultural problem around road engineering that has led to tolerating the current loss of life and injury on the roads stems from funding. “The money is in buckets – the road maintenance budget is in a bucket, the capital upgrades in a bucket and the safety spend is in a different – or empty – bucket. Road agencies and local government all manage their projects within those buckets.” He says the work is done in the spirit of doing the best they can within available budgets, but they’re restricted by those allocated spends. “It is only when we recognise there is a $300 billion bucket to address road trauma costs between now and 2030 that we will change the funding mismatch. This is why the inquiry has called for the Federal Government to support at least $3 billion a year for a road safety fund.
“In many cases, maintenance people will be the heroes of road safety if you think of something as simple as linemarking. It tends to be the budget that gets cut when road agencies are restricted for money.”
A faded road line, a damaged sign or loose debris – simple aspects of the road are what can easily be seen as non-critical in the grand scheme of things, but they need a safety refocus. “Can the driver see the line in wet weather? Will a new 18-year-old driver be able to rely on them at nighttime? Will the older driver see the sign or can the smart car read the road? Those little things can be the difference between life and death,” Mr. McInerney says.
“Before beginning the inquiry, the future financial burden of road trauma was hidden and underestimated. We now realise how grossly underfunded we are in all aspects of road safety and in the prioritisation of road safety related construction and maintenance,” he says.
While the recommendations from the inquiry outline Federal Government’s leadership role clearly, Mr. McInerney reiterates a big part of the solution to trauma on Australia’s road network is that culture change among engineering professionals. “Don’t put up with what you think could lead to a death or injury in the future. Whether it is a pedestrian without a footpath and safe crossing, a cyclist without a cycle lane, a damaged sign or an unprotected steep drop on a winding road, it is time to speak up. In every one of those cases there are proved measures that could be put in place at the design and maintenance level and it’s about putting your hand up and being part of the solution,” he says. “Emphasising stimulus and scale can help all roads and infrastructure professionals to unlock their lifesaving ability and truly do no harm.”