Focus on speed blurs a fatal truth
October 16, 2003
Sydney Morning Herald
There's a misguided reliance on deterrence by camera instead of making the highways safer, writes Miranda Devine.
There have been so many fatal accidents on the Pacific Highway near Neil Saines's home in Ballina in the past year that he has taken to keeping a record on a piece of paper near his phone. The sounds of ambulance and fire-engine sirens send a chill up his spine, and he says they have become increasingly common in the 13 years he has lived in the pretty town an hour from the Queensland border.
These are his notes for one month: on July 4 a 23-year-old man killed in a single-car crash; July 6, three teenagers were killed in a head-on collision with a semi-trailer; July 7, a 17-year-old girl was killed in a head-on; July 23, five cars were incinerated after a head-on, killing two people and seriously injuring six.
Ballina sits in the middle of one of the most dangerous stretches of highway in NSW. The Pacific Highway, the main route between Sydney and Brisbane, is a two-lane Third-World goat track for much of this northern section, despite promises of a 12-kilometre bypass around Ballina and seven years into a 10-year $2.8 million federal-state upgrade.
This excuse for a highway runs on a meandering route through the centre of Ballina, taking drivers from one end of town to the other, and back again, in a big U-turn that requires you to negotiate five roundabouts and a little two-lane wooden bridge.
The strain of ever-growing traffic volumes became much worse last August when the road was opened to the extra-long B-double trucks, which are deserting the federally-funded inland New England Highway for the shorter coastal route. Saines, aged 66 and vice-president of the Ballina Bypass Action Group (BBAG), says an extra 2000 vehicles rumble through Ballina every day, mostly big trucks.
As a result, the town's roundabouts are battered, their retaining walls smashed, their little gardens overrun as truck drivers valiantly try to manoeuvre 25-metre-long, nine-axle vehicles into right-hand turns. The power pole alongside one roundabout has had "half the side scraped off".
Saines says the NSW Government has been promising a bypass by 1998, then 2004, then 2006, then 2010. Now BBAG has been told there is no set completion date because of what the Roads and Traffic Authority says are "engineering and environmental challenges" on the surrounding wetlands. With funding to expire in 2006, the RTA is saying the project needs federal funding to be completed, despite the fact it is a state highway.
Despite the reluctance to spend money on roads to make them safe, there is no such foot-dragging from the State Government when it comes to ripping revenue out of motorists in the name of safety.
The NSW Roads Minister, Carl Scully, dumped as transport minister after wasting a reported $385 million on lemons such as the Millennium train and the near-empty Liverpool-Parramatta bus transitway, has turned his sights to speed cameras as a cure-all. NSW already has 110 fixed speed cameras, which rake in more than $40 million a year. Now Scully wants 20 per cent more, claiming research by ARRB Transport Research proves conclusively they save lives.
But in an article in this month's Policy magazine (www.cis.org.au
), a British sociologist, Alan Buckingham, says the opposite, citing research which shows speed cameras do nothing to reduce accidents, and may cause them. His research predictably caused howls of outrage yesterday, with the RTA describing it as "seriously flawed" and saying road deaths had been reduced significantly at 28 speed camera sites.
But Buckingham says governments in Britain and NSW lump together accidents and label them "speed-related". The RTA says 30 per cent of fatal accidents involve speed. Yet Buckingham found they had included in the definition such causes as "trucks jack-knifing", "fatigue" and alcohol". As he points out, any accident can be labelled speed-related since "objects cannot collide if they are not moving".
It is "excessive speed for the conditions" which Buckingham says is dangerous. He says it is those drivers who travel at well above or well below the limit who are dangerous. The safest drivers are those who travel at the 85th percentile of the traffic's prevailing speed on any given road, which may be over the speed limit. He concludes speed cameras therefore are catching the safest drivers but not the most dangerous slowpokes.
In Canada, the Government of British Columbia scrapped speed cameras when they found they had had "no discernible impact on speed or the fatal accident rate".
The data for the efficacy of speed cameras in NSW is not encouraging. Fatal crashes in NSW halved between 1980 and 1991, which is when speed cameras were introduced, writes Buckingham. "Since then, the decline has faltered with a drop of just 3 per cent since 1993, despite the implementation of double demerit points in 1997 and fixed speed cameras in 1999." The double-demerit scheme which operates over Christmas and other holiday periods is shown by Buckingham to have had "no effect" on road fatalities. Speed cameras may even cause accidents because journey times are increased, causing drivers to become frustrated; drivers may divert to less safe routes to avoid cameras; and cameras can distract driver attention, and cause sudden braking.
The danger of increased reliance by government on speed cameras, says Buckingham, is that "by regularly convicting large numbers of law-abiding people [and] alienating those on whose goodwill the police often rely ... respect for the law will lessen."
Speed cameras also let governments off the hook on safety. They can blame motorists for driving too fast instead of building proper dual carriageways that allow margin for inevitable human error. People will always make mistakes but a moment's inattention or miscalculation shouldn't be fatal.
Monday is the anniversary of the Grafton bus crash, in which 20 people died in a head-on collision between a coach and a semi-trailer on the Pacific Highway.
Fourteen years later, the road is still killing people. Just last Sunday, retired couple Bernard and Maureen Mellare died in a three-car head-on crash eight kilometres north of Taree, on a section of the Pacific Highway that is being upgraded and where the speed limit is just 80kmh.