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Our drivers deserve the best: Owler

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AMA President Professor Brian Owler has called for tougher vehicle safety standards, improved road user education and the development of a national road trauma database as part of efforts to reduce death and injury on the country’s roads.

Professor Owler told a Senate inquiry into road safety that there was much that can and should be done to reduce traffic trauma, including the adoption of world-leading design rules and technologies, such as autonomous emergency braking.

“I do not see why an Australian life should be worth any less than the life of a European or US or Japanese citizen,” he said. “I think our vehicles should be rated to the highest standards. It makes good sense.”

Cars equipped with autonomous emergency braking can detect the threat of an imminent collision and apply the brakes, either avoiding an accident or significantly reducing its severity.

Professor Owler said it was not just about preventing fatalities. He said people involved in simple accidents like rear-end collisions can suffer injuries such as whiplash that can have serious lifelong consequences.

He told the committee he had seen “many young people” who had lost their job and their partner after suffering whiplash and subsequently developing a dependence on opioids while trying to manage the pain.

Often, calls to tighten design and safety standards are resisted on the grounds that will add to production costs.

But Professor Owler said the marginal increase to the cost of a vehicle was more than offset by the huge savings to be made from preventing deaths and injuries that, over a lifetime, might cost millions of dollars in care.

One of the biggest blank spots in efforts to cut down the road toll was the lack of a national road trauma database, he said.

Though road deaths were recorded and shared across state borders, this did not extend to traffic accident injuries, hampering efforts to come to grips with the scale of the issue and how it could best be tackled.

“The number of deaths is only a fraction of the number of injuries that occur,” Professor Owler said. “While some of those injuries might heal…there are many injuries that are very devastating or at least result in significant time off work, loss of income, disruption to families. Being able to record that information is a very basic step that we need to take in order to be able to assess how we are going to make roads and cars safer.”

“It would provide a platform for being able to assess any investment [in road safety] that is made. But it will also allow us to determine where the problems are occurring”.

Professor Owler said while this was important, the most significant action governments should take would be to improve driver behaviour through education – particularly aimed at young people learning how to drive.

He said there was “a lot of positive feedback” regarding programs that aimed to educate those about to get their driver’s licences about speed, driving conditions, distractions and the role of passengers.

“People will make mistakes, and that is why education is so important, particularly for young drivers,” the AMA President said.

Adrian Rollins