Improving AU’s concrete road safety barriers

Concrete safety barriers are integral safety measures on AU roads, but they are not perfect. Leith Morriss from Holcim Australia highlights international experiences AU can learn from. From 1995 to the beginning of 2012, Australia saw a 54 per cent reduction in the fatality rate on its roads, according to the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE) report, Road Safety – Modelling a Global Phenomenon.

The findings in the paper, released in February 2014, are nothing to scoff at, but the rankings also show that other countries did much better reducing deaths on their roads during the same period.

Europe led the reduction of fatality rates over the recorded period. Sweden saw a 64 per cent decrease, Germany 73 per cent, France 65 per cent and Austria 67 per cent. At the other end of the spectrum is the US, where Australia has traditionally looked for road safety technology and standards, with a 36 per cent reduction.

“Fifteen years ago, both Australia and the US had two of the best safety records on their roads,” says Leith Morriss, National Business Development Manager at Holcim Australia, which incorporates National Precast Concrete Association Australia member Humes. “We were leaders in the market, and Europe wasn’t fantastic.” These most recent global rankings, however, put Australia lower than ever before. “The Europeans are now leaders in these stats,” he adds.

This ranking is an eye-opener for the quality of safety standards on Australian roads, and was one of the many issues raised at the inaugural Australasian Road Safety Conference 2015, held at the Gold Coast in September. Mr. Morriss touched upon the statistics in his own presentation there, in which he detailed what the Europeans had done and are doing to reduce road fatalities, specifically with precast concrete safety barriers.

BITRE’s own analysis within another report, Impact of Road Trauma and Measures to Improve Outcomes, released in December 2014 – surmises that roadside barriers and median barriers are one of the most effective measures to reduce road trauma. Mr. Morriss agrees that they certainly have a huge part to play in Australia’s Safe System approach to road design, and ultimately road safety outcomes.

The main question here is: what are the Europeans doing with their concrete safety barriers that Australia and the US aren’t?

Mr. Morriss explains that national benchmarks for precast concrete safety barriers in Australia have traditionally followed the American testing specifications. The Australian Standard was revised as recently as September this year, and reflects revisions to North America’s testing specification and, to some extent, Europe’s, which Mr. Morriss says has been a step in the right direction. However, he says the industry needs to focus more on what the Europeans are doing and be less distracted by the US direction.

“The revised Australian Standard and crash testing specification really focuses on the American specifications,” he says. Mr. Morriss refers to the fact that Australia and the US both use the MASH-NCHRP 350 test specifications as the basis for concrete safety barrier performance. Europe, on the other hand, uses EN1317.

“One of the big things that EN1317 has is strict requirements on vehicle occupant safety metrics. MASH acknowledges these safety metrics are preferable to consider, but only in EN1317 are they prescriptive targets which challenge safety barrier development,” he says. “Hence the European technology has evolved to a range of fit-for-purpose systems with optimal occupant safety outcomes, as well as prevention of vehicle break-through and roll-over upon impact.”

Australia tends to be more concerned with the shape and size of the barrier and only whether or not the car will break through it in an accident, asserts Mr. Morriss. This leads to heavy, expensive, rigid systems that can compromise occupant safety in crashes.

He says there is more that Australia could do to improve the safety barrier systems on its roads – the ultimate requirement should be to only use safety barriers that are fully crash-tested.

“The barriers we’re putting on our roads, especially on bridges, are often only desktop designed,” states Mr. Morriss. By desktop designed, he refers to the fact many safety barriers are not fully crash tested, but based on engineering calculations and notions of what works and what doesn’t. The added conservative this approach requires means heavy, rigid systems result, and the opportunity to optimise occupant safety outcomes is lost.

The Australian focus on size, shape and rigidity in its concrete road safety barriers strongly contrasts with the variety of fit-for-purpose barriers and occupant safety-focused European approach, the benefits of which Mr Morriss highlights in the Austrian-devised DeltaBloc barrier.

Humes Australia currently produces DeltaBloc safety barriers, which have existed for more than 15 years and are used in more than 30 different countries, with Germany being the major market.

DeltaBloc barriers exemplify the modern European safety barrier. They are designed to work like a chain, with continuous element connection, to absorb impact energy and minimise occupant injuries.

They are built with fewer materials and, most of all, extensively crash tested. Mr. Morriss reports that DeltaBloc spends more than $1 million of funding a year on crash testing alone. He says that there’s plenty that can be learnt from Europe in this regard.

“When it comes to designing safe systems for our roads, we need to pay attention to crash-testing results, not notions of what works and doesn’t work from outdated approaches in years gone by.

“We do have an understanding of the Safe System approach to road design, but we really can be learning better ways to achieve it with the international experience and technologies out there.”

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