Source: The Mercury, 14 April, 2001, p.28
By ELLEN WHINNETT and DANNY ROSE AUSTRALIA'S roads have tallied more victims than our participation in four major wars. Figures show more than 164,200 lives have been lost in road accidents since the first records were kept in 1925. The Australian Bureau of Statistics highlights the fact that the toll is more than double the 89,850 Australians killed in the biggest wars last century. The figures show also that Tasmanian road deaths run to 11.3 per 100,000 of population - compared with the national average of 9.3 per 100,000. The state falls into third place behind the Northern Territory (25.4 per 100,000), which has an open speed limit and Western Australia (11.7 per 100,000). So far this year, 27 people have died on the state's roads, up from 14 deaths for the same period last year. The public, road safety officials and police are united in deep concern at this figure which averages out to about two deaths a week. Questions are being asked about what more can be done to prevent Tasmanians killing themselves and others when they get behind the wheel. Education and enforcement have been the key strategies of recent years -- the Tasmania Police annual report for last year shows 10 million vehicles were checked for speeding. Of these 0.65 per cent were found to be speeding, continuing a three-year trend which has seen the numbers of speeding drivers decrease. Between 1925 and 1970 the national road toll rose consistently, peaking at 3789 deaths in one year. Now, it is about half that - 1761 deaths in 1999-thanks to the introduction of compulsory wearing of seat belts, better car safety design, random breath testing and speed and red-light cameras from the late '80s. The Federal and state governments have set a target of reducing road deaths to 1600 a year by 2005. Last calendar year, Tasmania recorded 43 road deaths, down from 53 in 1999, 48 in 1998 and the record lowest death rate of 32 fatalities in 1997. Road safety experts hope the disastrous first three months of this year are just an aberration. The state's senior traffic policeman is Assistant Commissioner (Crime and Operations) Barry Bennett. He knows first-hand the pain and trauma of traffic accidents: his 23-year-old son Ty was killed in a single-vehicle accident in February 1999. Ty, a constable with Tasmania Police, was responding to an alarm when his police car overturned. The loss of his son was devastating but day after day Bennett has to confront road safety issues as the police representative responsible for road safety. "You try to live through it but it doesn't lessen the pain," he said. People needed to understand the impact a fatality had on the community, he said. For every person killed, many more were affected - families, friends, workmates, schoolmates and emergency service workers and volunteers. Bennett said people should consider the ramifications of their actions when they got behind the wheel of a car. "It really is about attitude and driving to the conditions," he said. The 27 deaths in the first three months of this year, he said, should have sent a strong warning to Tasmanians, yet people continued to speed and commit other traffic offences. This week in the Eastern police district, a speed camera was set up in a school zone. In just 35 minutes, 28 vehicles were caught speeding. It was immensely frustrating for police, who don't know what else they can do to persuade drivers to slow down and take more care. "It comes down to changing driver behaviour," said Bennett. In 1983, random breath testing was introduced in Tasmania and now, almost 20 years later, alcohol figures in fewer accidents than ever. Bennett believes this is because most people have accepted that alcohol and driving should not go together. "There's still a bit of alcohol involved but over the years it's become a no-no," he said. "There's a fair bit of conscious effort made to stop driving if you've been drinking. "But speeding ... people still don't have that attitude about speeding. "With drink-driving, if you're over the limit, you're going to be that way for some time. With speeding, you can be up and over the limit and down again in a matter of seconds." He said police and road safety officials were looking at other ways to reduce deaths and injuries on the roads. Among the ideas to achieve that are pamphlets in hire cars, written in languages other than English, to warn tourists about the state's many windy and gravel roads. The RACT was pushing for better signage and a new speed. limit of 50km/h was expected to be introduced for built-up areas. Four-time Targa Tasmania winner and motor racing commentator Barry Oliver has been teaching people to drive defensively for the past nine years. He believes a scheme similar to that for obtaining a motorcycle licence where applicants attend two day- long driving courses - should be introduced for anyone seeking a car licence. The Road Safety Council is considering such a proposal. "Once that was introduced with motorcycles there was a significant drop in the number of people killed or injured," said Oliver. "We've got to go back to basics and teach people how quickly things can go wrong. It's simple things - like having no understanding tyres, driving too close to drivers in front and not picking up on hazards quickly enough." With 12,000 new car licences applied for each year, Oliver said one hurdle was the logistical problem mandatory defensive driving courses would lead to. Still he believes people need to be better educated on what a big responsibility driving is. "I do a lot of miles and it never ceases to amaze me the way people drive," he said. "Unless you're a thrillseeker and you race in Targa or jump out of planes or go bungyjumping, driving is the most dangerous thing you can do. I don't think a lot of people realise that." Oliver said people, including very experienced drivers like himself, would always make mistakes on the road. "We are not infallible - we are human and we are capable of making mistakes," he said. "What we have to realise is that a vehicle is a deadly weapon." He said more regular police patrols on rural roads and an increase in the number of vehicle inspections by Transport Department officers would help. The Motor Accident Insurance Board, which was formed to provide financial compensation in the wake of accidents, has a big interest in cutting the numbers of deaths and serious injuries on Tasmanian roads. A fatality claim can cost MAIB anything from $3500 for a funeral to $500,000 if a person with dependents was killed because of the negligence of another. A future care claim, in which a person needs paid care as a result of an accident, can range from a very small sum up to $10 million depending on their age and the number of hours of care a day required. In 1996, the MAIB decided to finance the establishment of the Road Safety Task Force, which looks at safety innovations. The money also employs 16 police dedicated full-time to traffic law enforcement and pays for an education campaign, mostly through media advertising. Task force chairman Paul Hogan said the MAIB had invested $5.8 million so far and had agreed to a further round of cash. He said the falling road toll over the past few years indicated the task force had been successful in reducing serious and fatal accidents. "Until this past quarter we can claim success," he said "This quarter caught us very much off-guard. I believe, and hope very much, it [the toll] is an aberration." Hogan said the most dangerous assumption people could make was that they would not be involved in road accident. "Most people believe it won't happen to them," he said. "We are trying to correct that mind-set."
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