OPINION / Crispin Hull digs into Road Safety and the Nationals

Earlier this month, then Acting Prime Minister and Nationals Leader Michael McCormack wrote a heart-tugging article for The Canberra Times and several regional news outlets about how 36 years ago as a cadet reporter he covered a shocking fatal crash in which two children and their parents were killed.

Pity about the shameless politicking on road funding at the end of the piece. And, worse, pity about the unstated National Party hypocrisy on road safety.

The piece was obviously geared for Australia’s silly season when there is little news about, and the Prime Minister can safely go on leave.

Not so in 2020-21, however. McCormack’s piece was eclipsed by Covid, the assault on US democracy and McCormack’s own inept responses about both.

In any event, it hasn’t been safe for a Coalition Prime Minister to go on leave since John Anderson retired as Nationals Leader.

That said, McCormack’s article epitomises the Nationals’ disdain for evidence-based policy and its preference for myths, prejudices and simple solutions.

“Road safety is something about which I am passionate,” he wrote.

Leaving the convoluted sentence structure aside, his passion is mostly misdirected. He cited billions of dollars in road-funding programs and nothing else as the way to reduce road trauma.

Meanwhile, back in NSW, his National Party colleagues continue to resist using average-speed cameras against car drivers. They are used only against drivers of vehicles weighing more than 4.5 tonnes.

Average-speed cameras snap cars breaking the speed limit all the time, but there is no enforcement in NSW because of opposition by Nationals MPs. Two years ago, the NSW Cabinet discussed the matter but the Nationals prevailed and the new road-safety program did not contain this obvious, cost-free road-safety measure.

McCormack would do more to reduce road trauma if he could induce his state colleagues to remove their resistance applying average-speed cameras to cars than all his billions on road upgrades. Indeed, he should make federal road funding conditional upon it.

The evidence from other Australian jurisdictions, all of which enforce against cars, shows that average-speed cameras reduce fatal crashes across all vehicle types.

The NSW position is based on populism, not evidence. The populist view is that speed cameras are “revenue-raising” and we should “get the trucks off the road” – especially in the bush.

But if cameras raised no revenue at all, government coffers would be in a better position because if no-one broke the speed limit or ran red lights, crash rates would plunge and the money saved by the health system would far outweigh the revenue from fines.

Also, blaming the trucks does not wash.

The NSW Transport website argues that average-speed cameras are directed at trucks “because they are often involved in serious road crashes. Heavy vehicles make up only 2.4 per cent of vehicle registrations, and 8.3 per cent of kilometres travelled by NSW vehicles, however, are involved in about 17 per cent of road fatalities”.

That ignores data, such as that from the National Truck Accident Research Centre, that 80 per cent of fatal accidents involving cars and trucks in Australia were the fault of the car driver.

Given that 90 per cent of fatal crashes involving a car and a truck occur outside major cities, Nationals MPs would be doing the right thing by their constituents to bring the cars into the remit of average-speed cameras, even if it is unpopular.

Average-speed cameras are also fairer. They target persistently bad behaviour and reduce the revenue-raising refrain caused by one-off incidents of driving a few km/h over the limit.

Road deaths have fallen dramatically in Australia since 1970. They are about a third of what they used to be 50 years ago despite kilometres travelled more than trebling.

It is not down to better roads. There are still plenty of poor roads in Australia for people to crash their cars on. The plummeting toll is more due to stricter enforcement of seat-belt wearing, drink-driving and speed, combined with safer cars, particularly air-bags, and more rapid and better medical treatment.

Indeed, there is an argument that better roads do little to add to road safety. When a road is improved, people increase their speed. They exercise roughly the same amount of risk. They do not reduce their risk by going at the same speed on the improved road that they used to go on the unimproved road.

They will burn away all of the extra safety, and more, provided by the better road in going faster to get there quicker. Unless, of course, you temper the risk-taking by speed limits and cameras.

But never get between a politician, particularly a rural one, and a nice new road, even if it is a road to nowhere of little economic merit.

Public funds should be spent wisely, according to evidence. And public policy should be made according evidence, not heart-strings, myths and prejudice.

But the Nationals prefer the latter, as attested by McCormack’s failure to call out quack science on Covid and climate, and equating protests against racism with violent sedition.

If he wanted to use the phrase “all lives matter” to some good use he would persuade his NSW Nationals mates to put average-speed cameras to full use.

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Austra;lian media on 23 January 2021.