Bill Tuckey | January 09, 2008 IT took just five hours for the first road carnage newspaper headline to appear at the start of the 2007 Christmas-New Year holiday period. South Australian police operating a random breath testing station. Picture: Brenton Edwards A man was killed when a stolen car crashed at an intersection during a chase in Melbourne at 5am on December 20. And so it began: the parade of news presenters, police using words such as slaughter and issuing pleas to slow down, and graphic images of mangled wreckage, sobbing relatives and friends, and flowers laid at crash sites. Properly analysed, road death toll figures demonstrate there is an extraordinary lack of debate about the real reasons behind fatalities and injuries in crashes. An examination of the figures shows that with all the speed and red light cameras, anti-alcohol measures, vehicle safety, improvements, road upgrades, street lighting and big spending on creative advertising over the past five years, the death toll has largely plateaued. Over that period total national vehicle registrations (adjusted for deregistered vehicles) have risen from 13.162 million (10.365 million of them passenger vehicles) to just over 14.8 million (11.51 million passenger vehicles). During 2007, an average of 9200 new (and safer) vehicles came on to the roads every month. Data shows Australia has been very good at reducing road trauma. The death ratio per 100,000 population has been about the same for the past five years. Injury totals have declined significantly because of vehicle impact performance, faster paramedic response and more effective medical intervention. As a result, holiday road trauma does not justify the alarmist treatment it gets or the authorities' shock-horror rhetoric. Figures from the federal Australian Transport Safety Bureau show that for several years state authorities have set the Christmas-New Year holiday period at 13 days (in Victoria in 2007 it began at midnight on December 20 and ended at midnight on January4). In 2006, the last full year for which ATSB figures are available, 62 people died: drivers, passengers, motorcyclists, cyclists and pedestrians. That represented an average of 4.7deaths a day. The same figures show that for the entire year, deaths averaged 4.38 a day and the most lethal weekly period year-long is Friday to Sunday, when there is an average of 5.4 deaths a day. For the five days of Easter 2007, there were an average of five deaths a day. It shows during holiday periods roads are no more dangerous than on the average weekday, and certainly safer than during normal weekends. And this is despite the diluting holiday logistics of extra distances covered, heavier traffic, bigger passenger loads, unroadworthy vehicles, drivers not used to distance driving, greater stress, more distractions and increased alcohol consumption. Of 1000 drivers stopped for random breath-testing, two or less per 1000 tested positive (over .05) and 65 per cent of those tested between .05 and .08, according to Australia's data bank of driver blood-alcohol content, now the longest-running and most detail-rich in the world. A three-week blitz by Victorian police in the first three weeks of December2007, yielded 989 positives out of 192,000 tests: a little less than 2per cent. All ordinary fatal crashes (can there be such a thing?) are attended by local police, not an elite crash investigation unit. So the death of a lone driver on a straight country road against a tree, in the absence of any obvious evidence of alcohol, drugs, another vehicle or braking marks, leads police to tick the box marked speed. Never mind that it could be caused by 30,000km-old windscreen wiper blades crazing the windscreen, bald tyres, scored brake discs, no seatbelts or even a huntsman spider falling into the driver's lap from a sun visor. Excessive speed is a simple reason commonly cited to explain a very complex problem. There is no single reason for a crash. Every crash is the result of a series of tumblers falling in the wrong sequence. Multiple-death crashes are extremely rare occurrences. However, no official will admit that factors such as vehicle roadworthiness, road engineering or maintenance, weather, or even untimely text messaging could be significant factors. US National Health and Traffic Safety Administration researchers produced a survey of fatal crash data that found excessive speed to be a small or negligible factor. It blamed driver inattention, "failure to see", and loss of control as by far the commonest causes. When 50 people died in the 1997-98 Victorian Christmas-New Year holiday period (which began that year on December 1, the government convened an immediate road safety summit. After meeting for one hour, the participants announced an extension of the zero blood-alcohol limit to the first three years of a licence and the suspension of the licence of any driver exceeding a speed limit by 20km/h. Their perspicacity was reinforced by a senior police officer, who used the much-run television footage of a red Falcon wagon that had been parked that holiday under a Hume Highway overpass and whose four sleeping occupants had been decapitated by a semitrailer, to demand compulsory five-hour rest stops for drivers and, further, the mandatory use of crash helmets for all passengers. About the same time the NSW Stay Safe Committee recommended that as most deaths happened on two-lane country roads, all overtaking on such roads should be banned in the state. Common sense prevailed in that case. In November 2004, Victorian premier Steve Bracks called for car speedometers to be capped at 130km/h. The motor industry considered it the stupidest idea ever suggested. In 2002, Victoria followed New Zealand and Britain and painted a number of police road patrol cars in garish colour schemes. Police responded by hiding them in scrub and behind buildings to set up speed traps. (I watched a thick scrub set-up on the Princes Highway book almost 100 bike riders in 90 minutes as they returned north from the Australian Grand Prix on Phillip Island). And so the road safety lie has been embedded, preying on road users' perceptions that if they don't drink and drive, or exceed the speed limit, they will be safe from the depredations of crazed drivers. It reinforces the common feeling that if an act is made illegal, it will fix things. However, people will always ignore what they perceive as bad or unenforceable laws: tailgating, failure to keep left, the use of mobile phones and (in some states) the suspension of dangly objects from the rear vision mirror. Several surveys have confirmed more than 30 per cent of drivers continue to drive while disqualified. Speed cameras can't stop that. Yet, even as state governments project traffic infringement revenue into annual budgets, they continue to insist that fixed and mobile cameras - euphemistically called safety cameras - are located in black-spot zones and not used for revenue raising. In 2005, NSW, which posts signs warning of fixed speed cameras, issued about 550,000 traffic infringement notices. Victoria - with fewer drivers, far less road surface mileage, and no such signposting - sent out 1.07 million; 82 per cent of those were for speeds less than 15km/h over the limit. Apart from a relative handful of cameras policing 40km/h school speed zones, the vast majority are placed on roads with high traffic volumes. In May 2005, the South Australian Government announced it would spend $35.6 million of its road safety budget of $60 million on 50 new red light intersection cameras, adding to the 12 existing cameras that in their first year of operation in 2004 generated $11 million in revenue. Yet the Government's official figures showed that over the previous eight years, disobeying traffic lights had caused only 1.34per cent of fatal crashes. Victoria Police runs almost 300 fixed speed and red light cameras, estimating that about three million vehicles are tabbed every month. Yet so far Victoria Police and its enforcement partners, VicRoads and the Traffic Accident Commission, have refused to reveal any detail of the infringements from the new average speed traps set on both three-lane sides of the Hume Highway early in 2007. These set-ups measure average speeds up to 72km/h into and out of Melbourne, issuing fines for speeds averaging more than 3km/h over the limit over distances as short as 3km. There are no notices warning hapless interstate drivers. Emphasis in all Australian states has shifted from surveillance and visual deterrence to speed measurement, as if this is the main crash factor apart from alcohol. The overemphasis on speed as a factor justifies government investment in ever more sophisticated technology to trap more vehicle users; in fact, government polling shows this gives voters a nice warm feeling because the authorities are seen to be doing something. Thus, as mobile road patrols vanish, we are losing the ability to check on the use of phones, suspended licences, outstanding warrants, underage drivers, the wearing of seat restraints, lane discipline, tailgating, unroadworthy vehicles and the rest. No longer do police sit and watch for those rolling through stop signs, as they did in the 1970s, nor can they lurk at railway level crossings to stop the growing incidence of vehicle-train crashes. They can't. They simply don't have the manpower, or are diverted to more revenue-worthy pursuits. There are calls for more transparency and more rational debate on new ways to lower road trauma, apart from the standard techniques of more disinformation to justify more technology and greater punishment. The all-states Australian Transport Council created by the Howard government in 2000 as part of a road safety strategy set a target to cut road deaths by 40 per cent by 2010. On New Year's Eve, Australian Automobile Association chief executive Mike Harris told The Australian: "Unless something serious is done, we've got no chance of reaching that 2010 target. In terms of the national road safety strategy target, we're actually going backwards when you look at the statistics." And, based on the statistics, that "something serious" could well be understanding that the huge emphasis on speeding and drink driving may even be counterproductive. Anecdotal evidence suggests that 95 per cent of people don't exceed speed limits and even fewer drink and drive. So their belief is that if they avoid those offences, they don't have to pay much more attention to being safe or driving carefully. Bill Tuckey is the former motoring editor of BRW and former editor of Wheels magazine.