Vehicle crashes are the leading cause of work-related deaths in Australia. create spoke to transport engineering specialists about how a safety-first culture could make a difference.
In 2019, road accident deaths accounted for 43 per cent of the 183 workers fatally injured at work, and 72 per cent (132) of the total number of deaths were related to vehicles. By comparison, 11 per cent were caused by falling objects and a further 11 per cent by falling from height.
As well as truck drivers and passenger transport workers, this includes people working with agricultural and construction vehicles, as well as workers travelling to and from jobs in other sectors.
According to Engineers Australia member Dr Brett Hughes MIEAust, traffic engineer and road safety researcher, road safety in Australia has been languishing for some time.
He said road deaths and injuries are considered as one of many competing microeconomic project costs, which did not take into account the suffering of victims and their loved ones.
“We should separate them out as deaths and serious injuries before and after road projects,” Hughes said.
Traffic engineer and transport economist, Engineers Australia member and Chartered engineer Dr Scott Elaurant MIEAust CPEng, added that road crash costs have been undervalued when counting only public costs such as damage to roads and expenses to public agencies. The private cost to individuals is also very high, and often life altering.
“That cost is still real, it’s borne by people in our community,” he said.
“And when you add that in, you get a very different answer to how much attention we should pay to road crashes. The true cost of road crashes is greater than the cost of road congestion.”
Safety-first road culture
As part of Engineers Australia’s advocacy for safer roads, Hughes and Elaurant presented expert evidence at a hearing of the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport earlier this year. The committee recently released its findings and recommendations.
“The committee provided the opportunity for Engineers Australia to promote its perspective to reset the road safety agenda within the freight industry,” Hughes said.
The focus of the report is on safety, sustainability and efficiency for the road transport industry, where 20 per cent (183) of all workplace deaths occurred between 2015 and 2019. Of these deaths, 137 were due to road accidents.
“It’s a very multifaceted report, from rest areas and congestion to road safety,” Hughes said.
Hughes and Elaurant both stressed that road infrastructure projects need a culture shift from focusing on congestion and travel costs to reducing road injuries and deaths (safety-first).
“We need to elevate road safety so it’s a primary responsibility for engineers, designers and road authorities,” Hughes said.
One challenge is that the vast majority of Australians live in cities and experience road congestion firsthand, Elaurant added, while serious road crashes affect a much smaller percentage of the population.
“For those people it’s absolutely devastating. But because most people never experience it, they don’t appreciate how big a problem it is,” he said.
Road safety duty of care
While regulators have charged truck drivers with dangerous driving in the past, it has not been common for employers to be held accountable for deaths and injuries caused by defective vehicles, or failing to meet their obligations to employees.
There are signs that this may change. In April, sewage truck company Cleanaway was found guilty of failing to train a driver whose truck crashed into a car on a downhill slope in 2014, killing two people. The truck’s rear brakes were also badly worn, and were likely to have overheated and prevented the driver from braking.
Elaurant believes this conviction sends a “short, sharp message” to employers, but is not yet the norm.
“There’s a need for more uniform action by regulators in all jurisdictions to enforce the existing laws on employers,” he said.
Hughes said engineers also have a duty of care under their professional charter to design roads that are as safe as they can be.
“Engineers need to move away from meeting standards to best practice,” he said.
He added that instead of asking ‘does it meet the standard?’, engineers should ask themselves ‘is it safe?’ For example, wider median strips and road shoulders, flashing hazard lights and rumble strips should be used whenever possible. More money should also be spent maintaining and improving rural roads, where most fatalities happen.
Australian road design guides and standards also need to be updated to include the safest procedures used overseas.
But Elaurant pointed out that for positive change, safety needs to be routinely included as a measurable project outcome.
“Until we do that, safe designs will never win a competitive bid,” he said.
No silver bullet
Hughes’s PhD research was focused on developing a comprehensive framework for road safety strategies.
“Road safety isn’t rocket science, it’s much more complex,” he said.
One piece of the puzzle is to ensure that engineering registration is mandatory for road infrastructure designers in all states.
“We understand we need safe buildings. But more people die on roads than in buildings falling down or catching fire. Qualification of the road designer is no less important,” Elaurant said.
Hughes emphasised the need for engineers, managers, designers and regulators to consider safety as implicit to every aspect of road infrastructure projects and operation.
“Silver bullets don’t work in a complex system,” he said.
“We need divergent thinking.”
The real question is why with so many using the road network as their ‘workplace’ there is no insistence that it and its vehicles do not need to comply with active visibility requirements mandatory in other regulated workplaces such as construction sites. Workers require hi-vis vests in arguably more regulated and less dangerous building sites yet cars and other vehicles can be virtually invisible matt greys and other ‘camo-colours’. Why is no effort made to limit vehicle colours to those with at least some optical contrast to their surroundings? Would the defence force choose dayglo orange paint for their combat vehicles? The same reverse logic condones cars painted grey – there isn’t any!!
I have already had confirmation from authors of car colour safety studies that their conclusions are flawed in their categorisation of white cars involved in accidents where the driver was inadvertently involved as they didn’t see the darker coloured car in time to avoid a crash. Priority should be made to reassess these studies. At the core of the issue, crash investigators need to record crash data more accurately to allow white and other vehicles to be excluded from data if they are involved due to lack of visibility and therefore a more accurate crash assessment made. I suspect that inconspicuous coloured cars would be involved in more multi-vehicle crashes than others with the most concerning aspect being that we simply don’t know one way or the other at present..
I agree that the above is a great approach, however, I have concluded that bad/nasty driver behaviour
is more of a problem than road design, vehicle condition or such as driver training.
I have devised a programme that would probably reduce dangerous driving and road- rage, but so far I have not found anyone interested in listening.
We have incidents everyday involving drivers, it is not the road, it is lack of driver education, training, poor driver behavior, lack of drug and alcohol testing, bad habits brought from overseas.
Australia has one of the best roads in the world.
1) Getting a lisence is a lot lot easier than it should be.
2) Punishments are quite strict, but rewards for good driving are not significant enough to influence good driving.
3) Poorly designed road banks ( example: you’ll find 2 or 3 banks inclined in completely opposite direction at 70km/h speed zone of princess highway from Sylvania to Rockdale alone)
4) Expensive toll roads lead some people to drive unusually fast on alternate free roads to compensate for the time.
5) And the ultimate killer, texting.
Hold a career evenly split between public sector positions in the transport & road infrastructure sector and now Chairman of a civil engineering construction business owning a fleet of trucks.
Regarding the ever increasing tightening of regulations on the sector, the 5% of disreptuble companies in the industry will continue to ignore the law until the consequences result in convictions and gaol time for senior management and company directors.
Forty years, ago, there were far less trucks on the road with B-Doubles only introduced by being limited to the most experienced company drivers of a fleet. You now have seemingly every second truck on the road hauling a trailer of various capacity and have no option other than putting young inexperienced drivers on the road behind the wheel of these rigs.
I regularly see three trucks abreast driving around Sydney causing frustrated motorists to do dangerous manoeuvres in order to get ahead, typically involving overtaking on the left and squeezing back in leaving insufficient braking room for the truck.
Road rules need to be changed to prevent any vehicle of over 4.0GVM, i.e. all trucks, from travelling in the right hand lane and only able to overtake when no other vehicle under 4.5GVM is impeded. Trucks needing to turn right from the right hand lane may only enter the lane two hundred metres before the turning lane. These changes would dramatically improve motorists behaviour towards trucks and remove the truck cowboys no longer able to drive their trucks like being on a race track.
Mood meters like breathalysers on ignition systems for start up.
High visibility car colours only.
Better education for all drivers. Annual or biannual short currency course on basic road rules, good driving discipline, and basic, simple car maintenance: oil, coolant, battery, tyres, lights.
M Chambers RPEQ, CPEng, IntPE (Aus), MIEAust
I agree with both Michael Hipkins and Atul Prasad.
I have been investigating for, designing and constructing roads in some 20+ countries over the last 35+ years. Admittedly we could improve roads but surely drivers should be taught to “drive to the conditions” and “road rules”. Additionally it would appear that many drivers do not know the road rules or are just ignoring them.
Some good comments but sad to a degree. I first became heavily involved in road safety in 1965 after reading Ralph Nader’s book “Unsafe at any speed.” And I graduated as a mechanical engineer in 1969. I have been involved in road safety ever since including 2 years as Victorian RTA’s commercial vehicle safety expert, 4 years as VicRoads Manager of Road Safety Investigations, and 4 years as one of two road safety experts BHP has in their employ. Since 1995 I have become more and more disappointed with the group of road safety experts collectively. I was the Manger responsible for the VicRoads $435,000 evaluation of the effect of the introduction of mobile speed cameras in early 1990, and based in Victorian crash data I was convinced they had a tremendous impact on educing fatalities. However when I went to work for BHP I had an international focus, and reviewed all available fatality trends. To my amazement almost all jurisdictions had experienced large drops in fatality rates per 100 M km. I re-analysed all the data and show the sudden drop was due to the economic downturn of 1989/91 and the longer term drop was the result of the huge increase in the number of cars with airbags. But the road safety professionals did not support that, and they have continued to push speed limits and enforcement cameras since – even though Idris Francis UK showed absolutely that enforcement cameras achieved nothing and may in fact increase road trauma after the first year of use. My efforts to present the facts to the ACRS conference were completely prevented by their peer review process! I know that driver training achieves next to nothing mainly because the 80% of responsible drivers very rarely crash – around once every 35 years – and training to prevent such rare events is very difficult. And the 20% of irresponsible drivers don’t care about road safety.
CAN SOMEONE PLEASE EXPLAIN WHY THE GOVERNMENT ALLOWS HIGH POWERED WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION ON OUR ROADS. SURELY IT HAS A DUTY OF CARE TOWARDS ITS CITIZENS. WHY DO WE HAVE VEHICLES CAPABLE OF 200KM PER HOUR WHEN IT IS ILLEGAL TO EXCEED THE SPEED LIMIT.