Regional roads missing out on vital safety dollars

Wire fences and glow-in-the-dark paint are some of the simple changes experts think could stop horrific smashes on country roads.

After decades spent on strategies to stamp out dangerous driving habits, there is now growing recognition the Australian road network needs to be better designed to accommodate another cause of serious accidents: basic mistakes.

The theory is simple - people will always make mistakes behind the wheel but when they do, infrastructure should be far more forgiving. More roads should be divided, wider, smoother and brighter at night.

However, the size of the task is daunting; the regional road network stretches millions of kilometres and government coffers are bare.

Lori Mooren, a former senior road-safety bureaucrat in NSW, said regional Australia should look to Sweden for inspiration.

Over the past decade, Swedish road authorities have presided over a massive reduction in crashes using what’s known as the ‘2+1’ approach. Two-lane, undivided roads with wide shoulders are reconfigured so two lanes run in one direction and one runs in the other (alternating every few kilometres). The lanes are divided by flexible, but strong, wire barriers, eliminating head-on collisions. Barriers are also installed on the edge of the road in some sections, to prevent cars from running off the road and into trees and poles.

The result: a 50 per cent reduction in fatalities and injuries. In Ireland, a one-year trial of the scheme lowered the rate of fatalities and severe injuries by 50 to 60 per cent.

A NSW Roads and Maritime Services spokeswoman said wire-rope barriers cost about $300 to $400 per metre to purchase and install. Put another way, between $300,000 and $400,000 per kilometre. Other estimates hover at about $150 a metre.

In 2010-11, the total national expenditure of specific safety-focused road works was $506 million – just five per cent of the total investment in Australia’s road infrastructure that year.

The National Road Safety Strategy, adopted by state and federal governments last year, found that to further cut the toll, “much greater emphasis needs to be placed on initiatives that improve the inherent safety of the road transport system”.

On high-speed rural routes, the installation of a roundabout can lower casualty crashes by 70 per cent. In the Netherlands, radical ‘glow-in-the-dark’ line markings are about to be rolled out to help prevent night-time accidents. Relatively inexpensive changes such as sealing road shoulders, clearing dangerous trees, line marking and tactile ‘rumble strips’, also help stop crashes or minimise their severity.

But the vast majority of the regional road network is controlled by cash-strapped councils struggling to keep pace with basic maintenance. Rebuilding roads and rolling out modern safety schemes are high on their wish-lists but low in their order of priorities.

The chairman of the non-partisan lobby outfit Australian Rural Road Group, John Coulton, said rural councils were being short-changed and needed more cash.

His group wants a central body established to independently assess which roads most require safety works and distribute funds accordingly.

“I’m cynical enough to know all levels of government often only govern with an eye to the next election and we’d like to take the politics out of the issue,” Mr Coulton said.

“I think we need much more money spent on those little things that can make a big difference to road safety and if that money went where an independent assessment said it was truly needed, I can guarantee more would be going to the bush and less on things like fancy roads around Perth Airport.”

Ms Mooren, now a senior research fellow at the University of New South Wales, agreed safety often took a back seat.

“When I was in charge of road safety for (NSW) RTA I used to get phone calls from people in regional areas who were working on road development projects and they would often tell me when the budget was pinched or it looked like there would be a blowout, compromises were made and invariably they were safety compromises,” she said.

Read more in our road safety series:

Regional road slowdown key to saving lives: expert

Teen deaths devastating communities 

Rising road toll 'dark cost of economic boom'

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