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Better cars, safer intersections key to cutting road toll



Dozens of lives and millions of dollars could be saved through simple measures to improve road safety such as building more roundabouts, installing more guard rails and lowering speed limits, an official review has found.

Despite major improvements in road safety in recent decades, the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics has reported that road crashes not only kill and maim hundreds every year, but cost the community $27 billion annually – the equivalent of 18 per cent of total health expenditure and 1.8 per cent of gross domestic product.

In a study commissioned by the Federal Government, the Bureau assessed a range of measures that could be taken to reach the National Road Safety Strategy target of a 30 per cent reduction in casualties by the end of the decade, including road upgrades, lower speed limits, a crackdown on in-car distractions such as mobile phones and advances in car safety features.

While admitting to significant limitations in trying to quantify the benefits of some measures, the Bureau nonetheless found that installing more roundabouts was likely to be the most cost-effective action governments could take to reduce the road toll, followed by installing more roadside barriers, centre median barriers and shoulder rumble strips.

The Government has seized on the report to back its massive $50 billion infrastructure agenda.

Assistant Minister for Infrastructure Jamie Briggs said the Bureau’s findings highlight that “each of our major infrastructure investments will help save lives and reduce road trauma, not only on major highways, but also on nearby local roads”.

But the report only provides qualified support for major road building projects, emphasising that relatively low cost measures such as installing roundabouts and guard rails deliver the best value for money in terms of lives saved and injuries averted.

The Bureau reported that converting an intersection into a roundabout typically reduced fatalities and injuries by more than 70 per cent, and the estimated benefit-cost ratio was 11.3.

“Intersection treatments can be very effective,” the report said. “Roundabouts can be particularly effective, reducing casualty crashes by over 70 per cent.”

By comparison, installing guard rails on 85 per cent of the nation’s road in the next 20 years would potentially save 13 lives a year and 353 fewer serious injuries, for a benefit-cost ratio of 5, and building centre median barriers would save about 46 lives annually for a benefit-cost ratio of 3.8.

Overall, such measures were likely to bring only incremental improvements in road safety, and often involved trade-offs – for instance, roadside barriers were more dangerous for motorcyclists, and roundabout were more treacherous for pedestrians, cyclists and those on motorbikes.

Smarter cars

Instead, the Bureau found that improvements in vehicle safety technology, particularly the introduction of autonomous emergency braking systems, may constitute the next big advance in cutting the road toll.

“Vehicle safety technology and standards are set to take over from the three main measures that have reduced road trauma so far (seat belts, blood alcohol testing, and speed enforcement) to deliver further reductions in the road fatality rate,” the report said.

“Autonomous emergency braking (AEB) systems will save lives as they are introduced to the vehicle fleet.

“The technology in light vehicles is expected to save over 1200 lives and prevent 54,000 hospitalised injuries by 2033. Over 400 of these deaths and 10,000 of the hospitalised injuries prevented are pedestrians and pedal cyclists.”

Not only is such technology set to make vehicles safer, but also render some of the investment in safer roads and intersections eventually redundant: “AEB will reduce the incidence of collision crashes, and thus reduce the road trauma benefits of intersection treatments, as these also target a subset of collision crashes”.

Road safety experts polled by the Bureau in preparing its report also nominated other measures such as cracking down on the in-car use of mobiles, lower speed limits and a more visible police presence on the roads.

It said mobile phone use was probably a factor in around 7 per cent of crashes last year, involving 83 deaths and 2300 instances of hospitalisation.

But it said a lack of specific measures to curb their use meant it was not possible to model their effectiveness.

The Bureau said that speed could be “directly correlated” with road trauma, and cutting speed limits could improve safety. But it warned this would also increase travel times on uncongested roads, and so should only be introduced with care.

“Reductions in speed limits may be warranted on some rural roads. However, whether it would be warranted on any particular stretch would depend on specific crash rates and characteristics.”

Adrian Rollins