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Monday, 31 October 2011
Page: 12247


Mr MURPHY (Reid) (21:10): One of the most intractable issues of public safety that governments seek to redress is the seemingly endless carnage on Australia's roads, an annual disaster that sees a national average of around 1,400 fatalities each year. Furthermore, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that for each death another 20 people suffer serious injury that frequently imposes long-term social and economic burdens on the individuals and families involved.

Government road safety initiatives have seen a significant improvement in these figures—down from a peak of 3,798 road fatalities in 1970 to the current average that is, however, still somewhat more than a third of that dreadful statistic. Put in other terms, the number of road accident fatalities per capita has fallen from a peak of 30.4 per 100,000 people in 1970 to 6.9 per 100,000 in 2009, largely as a result of government measures such as the introduction of compulsory seatbelts, installation of speed cameras and red-light cameras, improved roads and vehicles and the strengthening and enforcement of laws governing road use, including random breath testing, as well as an increasing public awareness of road safety.

One of the chief culprits of road fatalities has been the four-wheel-drive vehicle. In 2002 an Australian Transport Safety Bureau report titled Four wheel drive crashes highlighted that collisions involving four-wheel-drives are nine times more likely to kill other road users than to kill the driver of the four-wheel-drive, and the number of fatal crashes in four-wheel-drives jumped 85 per cent between 1990 and 1998 compared with an overall reduction of 25 per cent in fatal crashes on the roads for the same period. By 1998 12 per cent of fatal crashes on Australia's roads involved four-wheel-drives. This compared with five per cent eight years earlier.

Paradoxically four-wheel-drives enjoyed favourable tax status for decades with five per cent tariffs compared with 15 per cent tariffs on other cars. We had a tax regime that encouraged the purchase of four-wheel-drives and sales consequently soared. In 1995 the customs duty tariff on passenger cars was 27.5 per cent, but for four-wheel-drives it was 7.5 per cent. Over the years both have come down and as of 1 January 2010 both are now taxed at five per cent.

The reason the difference existed was that two decades ago four-wheel-drives were tools of the trade. Now many are not. They are simply passenger cars. For those who take their vehicles off the road it is the capacity for these all-terrain vehicles to explore off the beaten track that makes them attractive. Large four-wheel-drives have considerable towing capacity, which is useful for those with caravans and boats. According to car makers, however, only a fraction of four-wheel-drives actually make it off the road. Despite this, vehicles named Discovery and Explorer offer the possibility of fulfilling the dream of a great trip or adventure. For many it remains only a dream.

For others the attraction is their tough appearance. They are generally large vehicles and occupants sit higher, providing great road visibility and a perception of safety. But this perception is often false. In four-wheel-drive crashes involving multiple vehicles, occupants of four-wheel-drives accounted for 18 per cent of fatalities compared with 64 per cent for car occupants. Four-wheel-drive owners argue that they are safer in a four-wheel-drive than in a car. Yet the number of fatal four-wheel-drive crashes increased by 85 per cent between 1990 and 1998. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau attributed the rise to an increase in four-wheel-drive activity rather than to any increase in vehicle safety. The bureau also indicated that cars and light trucks recorded slightly lower fatal crash involvement than four-wheel-drives. While owners defend their right to choice, the increase in urban four-wheel drives has met with criticism. Some people deride them as 'Toorak tractors' or 'urban assault vehicles' and claim that their proliferation in urban areas is a safety threat. Critics say that their size and bullbars pose a threat to other road users and pedestrians and that high fuel consumption is an environmental cost.

Four-wheel drives have also been widely criticised for inferior handling and relative lack of manoeuvrability. A study by the Monash University Accident Research Centre in April 2007 found that four-wheel drives were especially vulnerable to rollovers because of their high centre of gravity, and crash test results indicated that they struck with about four times the force of a car. An Australian Transport Safety Bureau report shows that collisions involving four-wheel drives were nine times more likely to kill other road users than to kill the four-wheel driver. Of the 13 children involved in driveway related fatalities in Victoria since 2000, 10 were killed by a four-wheel drive or truck. Kidsafe Australia President Dr Mark Stokes said that driveway fatalities were easy to prevent and that the one way of doing this was to abandon the four-wheel drive as the family car. Other statistics indicate that, as the mortality and morbidity arising from cardiovascular disease, cancers and other illnesses decline with improvements in medical science, deaths and morbidity resulting from motor vehicle accidents will, as a proportion, slowly increase unless further effective steps are taken to improve road safety.

Most of the road safety measures introduced over the last few decades have been largely passive in that they do not actively affect the mechanical operation of the vehicle but rely mainly on modifying the behaviours of the drivers, who are vulnerable to the normal human frailties and errors of judgment. Fortunately, however, recent advances in electronics, computers, sensors and actuators have made practical and affordable a major improvement in the safety of motor vehicles, and there now exists a substantial list of proven technologies that either have been shown to reduce road fatalities or have the potential to do so. Those that are currently available in some models include antilock brake systems that improve steerability and hasten deceleration during hard braking; an electronic stability control that detects and prevents skids; and a traction control system that prevents drivers losing control when manoeuvring.

Other active systems—those meant to prevent crashes—include but are not limited to forward collision warning systems that detect a potential collision and sound an alarm; automatic braking that senses a potential collision and applies the brakes without driver input; traffic sign recognition that sounds an alert as a driver enters an area where traffic rules or speeds have changed; lane departure detectors that sound an alarm when a vehicle strays from its lane; lane departure prevention devices that stop a car from changing lanes when the device detects a hazard coming from behind in the next lane; and back-over detection that warns a driver of an unseen obstruction or person when the vehicle is backing up and sounds an alarm or applies the brakes if necessary. The frequency of the regular, distressing reports of children being run over by reversing vehicles could be greatly reduced by the compulsory installation of this single device.

Demonstrating the effectiveness of these devices, in 2006 the United States Insurance Institute for Highway Safety concluded that electronic stability control reduces the likelihood of all fatal crashes by 43 per cent, fatal single-vehicle crashes by 56 per cent and fatal single rollovers by 77 to 80 per cent, a huge improvement. Ahead of the Europeans in responding to these convincing figures and other strong evidence from 2004 that was ignored by the Howard government, the Australian Labor government announced on 23 June 2009 that electronic stability control would be compulsory for all new passenger vehicles sold in Australia from November 2011 and for all new vehicles sold from November 2013. As a result of this single measure, fatalities from road crashes can be expected to be reduced by almost half over the next 15 to 20 years, roughly the replacement time for the national vehicle fleet. This rational and humane policy of our government will eventually result in almost 700 fewer people being killed on Australian roads each year. In fact, the road toll could be halved. Of all the achievements of the Labor government, I would say that the introduction of electronic stability control in motor vehicles and its impact on the road will be seen as one of the most beneficial. Affordable and practical technology now exists that makes possible a great reduction in the road toll. Yet, with the exception of electronic stability control, none of the recent advances in active safety systems have been required to be fitted to new vehicles. In my view, this situation needs to change rapidly. Considering the benefits, many of these life-saving devices should be fitted to all new vehicles now.