Date created:13/6/03
Last modified:13/6/03
Maintained by: John Quiggin
John Quiggin

Let's stick to a good thing

Australian Financial Review

5 June 2003

What has been Australia's most successful public health initiative? There are plenty of worthy candidates, but my vote goes to the campaign against the road toll, which began in 1970 with the world's first laws compelling the wearing of seat belts, in Victoria in 1970.

Other initiatives, many of them world firsts, have included random breath testing, hard-hitting advertising campaigns, red light cameras and speed cameras. In addition, there has been a reaction against the freeway mania of the 1950s and 1960s, which has partially offset the drift from public transport to a car-dependent society.

The results have been striking. The number of road deaths in Australia, which had been climbing steadily until 1970, fell from a peak of nearly 4000 per year to about 1750 in the late 1990s. Compared to a continuation of the 1970 death rate, this is a saving of around 40 000 lives.

It might, of course, be argued that this turnaround was a coincidence, and that the reduction in road deaths was primarily the product of improvements in vehicle safety such as antilock braking systems, airbags, collapsible steering columns and so on. Additional life savings have come from improvements in medical emergency treatment.

It would be surprising if these factors did not play a role. But the same improvements have taken place throughout the developed world, and few countries have made gains in road safety as dramatic as those in Australia. In 1970, this was one of the most dangerous countries in the world for road deaths, with an annual death rate of 30.4 per 100 000 people. Today that rate has fallen to around 9 deaths per 100 000, among the lowest in the developed world.

The contrast with the United States is particularly striking. In 1970, a little over 50 000 people died on American roads, a rate of about 25 per 100 000 people. While this was a horrific figure, the United States had, on any reasonable measure, the safest roads in the world at that time. The combination of excellent roads, new cars and state-of-the-art road safety measures gave the United States the world's lowest death rates per licensed driver or per vehicle.

Over the next twenty-five years, road deaths declined by around 20 per cent, as improvements in vehicle safety offset the impact of increasing car-dependence and lax enforcement of road safety. Since then, road deaths have risen, reaching 42 000 in 2001. By comparison with the striking reductions achieved in Australia, the United Kingdom and other countries where road safety is taken seriously, this is a very poor performance. With a road death rate of 15 per 100 000 people, the US is among the most dangerous places in the OECD in this respect. The US still performs relatively well on the criterion of deaths per million vehicle kilometers, but this is a misleading statistic taking no account of vehicle occupancy, or of the policy failures that lead to high levels of car-dependence.

One of the great strengths of the campaign for road safety has been the bipartisan support it has attracted. Labor, Liberal and National Party Transport ministers have been willing to brave the mindless reactions of those drivers who consider that their special skills should exempt them from the rules applying to the common herd (80 per cent of drivers class themselves as 'above average'). Even more remarkably, their political opponents have refrained from trying to score cheap political points at the expense of public safety.

Until now, that is. Victorian Opposition Leader Robert Doyle pandered to the leadfoot vote at the last election with a proposal to legalise speeding, in the form of a 10 per cent tolerance above speed limits. Despite a comprehensive thrashing, he's returned to his 'soft on crime' line, with complaints that the Bracks government is enforcing speeding laws too vigorously.

Doyle raises the tired argument that speeding fines are motivated by 'revenue raising'. Even if this were true, what would be wrong with that? Governments have to raise revenue, and dangerous drivers are at least as good a tax base as gamblers, homebuyers and wage employees, the targets of the main taxes left to state governments. In fact, however, the increase in fines seems to be contributing to a renewed decline in road deaths, which have fallen sharply in 2003.

If he had any chance of being elected to office, Doyle's irresponsible demagoguery would be dangerous. As it is, it gives his long-suffering colleagues yet another reason to dump him before they are tarred with the same brush.

Professor John Quiggin is a Senior Research Fellow of the Australian Research Council, based at the University of Queensland and the Australian National University.

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