THE decision to reintroduce open speed limits on a Northern Territory highway has experts worried that the national road safety message of “speed kills” is being undermined by policymakers.
Dr Stephen Gourley, chair of the NT faculty of the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine, told MJA InSight that the decision was “silly” and counterproductive of all other efforts to reduce the incidence and impact of road trauma.
“It’s like telling you on one hand that seatbelts will save your life, but then saying it’s okay not to wear them sometimes.”
Dr Gourley was responding to an MJA
Perspectives article by Dr David Read, director of trauma and burns at the Royal Darwin Hospital, that discussed the NT government’s decision for a trial to allow motorists to drive at whatever speed they felt comfortable with on a 200 km section of the Stuart Highway. (1)
Despite concerns voiced by medical, policing and road safety groups, the government’s response was to emphasise the opposing impacts of alcohol and seatbelts on road safety, to deny speed was a major factor in many crashes, and to promote individual driver responsibility.
Dr Read wrote that Australian and international studies had shown that reducing speed limits by 10 km an hour on rural roads decreased the crash risk by 20%‒25%.
The Australia road deaths database showed a decrease of 3.4 fatalities per year on NT roads with a speed limit of 110 km/h or above following the abolition of open speeds. Dr Read acknowledged the small numbers involved made statistical interpretation difficult.
He said that other legislative measures and trauma system improvements were likely to have contributed to the reduction in deaths, but playing down the role of speed in crash risk was unwise and “sends the wrong message to the NT population, especially when they are already three times more likely to die on the roads than people living in other parts of Australia”.
“The available evidence in the literature suggests that the piecemeal reintroduction of open speeds on the highways of the NT will eventually result in an increased number of fatalities and serious injuries”, Dr Read wrote.
Professor Brian Fildes, adjunct professor at the Monash University Accident Research Centre, agreed, telling MJA InSight that emphasising driver behaviour alone was not enough to reduce the incidence of road trauma, and that “road and infrastructure design, and safe vehicles, are critical components here too”.
However, he said speeding remained one of the most serious issues that needed to be better addressed in road safety strategy, as the role it played in accidents was under-recognised.
“High speeds relative to other speed limits, and the rest of the traffic, is risky and [the fact is] that many crashes in rural areas occur from excessive speeding.” Professor Fildes said that the groups at highest risk for road trauma were young inexperienced drivers, older drivers, male drivers and motorcyclists.
Professor John Crozier, chair of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons’ Trauma Committee, said speed was a contributing factor in approximately one third of all road trauma incidents in Australia.
On a national level, road crashes killed around 1400 people every year and caused 32 500 serious injuries, “which is roughly the size of the population of Ipswich in Queensland”, he told MJA InSight
Dr Gourley said the most common injuries associated with road accidents were head and spinal injuries, as well as blunt trauma to the abdomen. Dealing with these severe injuries could have a profound psychological impact on the emergency physicians who treated them.
“However, I think it is much worse for the police and ambulance workers who attend the scene of the crash — we see the patients once they’ve been tidied up a bit, and in a more controlled environment.”
Professor Crozier said road trauma had a big impact on healthcare resources, often requiring the support of every speciality in the hospital, including orthopaedic surgeons, facial reconstruction teams, thoracic surgeons, vascular surgeons, general surgeons and radiologists.
“Then there are the ward and [intensive care] costs, and the costs associated with rehabilitation. And some patients will have serious injuries involving paralysis of limbs, which requires long-term care”, Professor Crozier said.
He said the open speed limit policy in the NT was in clear breach of the agreement signed by all state and territory transport ministers on the restriction of road speed, and represented a failure to follow through on the shared goals and actions outlined in the National Road Safety Strategy.
(Photo: Marcin Pawinski / shutterstock)