Over the years, we’ve managed to reduce the number of people killed on our roads, thanks to measures like compulsory seat belts, reduced speed limits, drink driving laws and better enforcement.
But in 2019, we went backwards. In Victoria, 265 people were killed last year – 52 more than in 2018. And the bad result here meant that across Australia 1,188 people were killed compared to 1,135 the year before.
The overall number of road deaths had previously been decreasing over the last decade, but pedestrian deaths have remained reasonably constant and have increased since 2017, when there were 31. This compares to 37 in 2018 and 48 in 2019. Last year, pedestrians represented 18% of all people killed, the highest proportion of pedestrian deaths in a decade. Half of these people were 60 years or older.
Victoria Walks recently prepared submissions on this issue to both the Victorian Parliament's inquiry into the increase in Victoria's road toll and to the Parliament of Australia's Joint Select Committee on Road Safety. In order to reduce the number of people killed and injured on the roads, there needs to be a focus on pedestrian safety – a call supported by many others, including RACV, COTA and ANCAP.
So, what can we do to make our roads safer for people on the street?
There are many ways to make roads safer for walkers, like pedestrian crossings, kerb extensions, painted medians and removing slip lanes. However, these treatments are not being used anywhere near as much as they should be. We need better guidelines that make good design for pedestrians standard practice, not an exception.
Currently there is no regular funding stream dedicated to walking for transport or pedestrian road safety, at a state or federal level. There should be ongoing funding dedicated to improving roads for pedestrians – $100 million per annum at the state level and 5% of federal transport funding Australia wide.
A person hit by a car travelling at 50 km/h is likely to die. If the impact speed is 30 km/h instead, not only is the person likely to survive, there is a 70% chance they will not even be injured and can walk away. Changes to speed limits are quick, easy and cheap compared to infrastructure changes.
Almost a third of pedestrian injuries in Victoria cluster along major arterial roads with a speed limit of 60 km/h. And the default urban speed limit of 50 km/h is significantly higher than the best practice recommended speed of 30 km/h for local streets. We need to rethink speed limits.
Suburbs that moved to 30km/h limits in Toronto eliminated two-thirds of pedestrian deaths and serious injuries. But here in Victoria the current guidelines do not contemplate 30km/h speed limits.
Both the Victorian and Australian road safety strategies seek to reduce road deaths, but assume the status quo will continue; that is people will continue driving at current rates. If we can get people changing from driving to walking, cycling or public transport, roads become safer for everyone and there are many other benefits to the individual and broader community. Modal shift can be encouraged by designing activity centres and train stations with direct and safe walking routes and reducing car dominance of the area. Reducing car parking requirements and instead using the space for shops and houses, or to plant trees and provide seating, would create streets that are safer and more pleasant for walking.
Some road rules are inconsistent with physical cues and drivers’ understanding. Currently pedestrians have priority over drivers turning into a street, but not those turning out. From a legal point of view this may require a person to stop in the middle of crossing a road and give way to vehicles. This needs to change. In addition, most car parks are not designed as roads and do not include footpaths, but the usual road rules still apply. Instead, car parks should be treated as shared zones.
Having appropriate road rules is no good unless they are understood and enforced. Research found deaths of older pedestrian are mostly due to bad road design or poor drive behaviour. Victoria Walks does not oppose walkers being fined for breaking laws, but also wants to see attention on driver behaviour that is illegal and dangerous to pedestrians, such as not giving way when turning and blocking intersections.
Research suggests a high proportion of pedestrian crashes occur in situations where the driver should have given way. Victoria Walks believes that many drivers don’t understand their obligations to pedestrians. Driver education campaigns should be conducted to improve understanding of the road rules.
Government decision making and investment are often based on road crash statistics. Crashes involving pedestrians tend to be underreported, particularly those without major injuries. And a pedestrian who is injured or killed may not get the opportunity to relate their statement to the Police, which can result in only one side of the story being heard and a biased crash report.
The Police database records pedestrian crashes according to set Definitions for Classifying Accidents. But these codes do not provide any real detail about the circumstances of the crash, so it is hard for researchers to use even the limited data that is available.
Crash reporting needs to be improved to provide better data around the circumstances of pedestrian crashes.
Fitting autonomous emergency braking (AEB) to a vehicle helps avoid crashes with pedestrians and reduces the severity if they occur. However only 58% of light vehicles (passenger cars, SUVs and light commercial vehicles) for sale in 2019 included AEB as standard. Victoria Walks supports the recommendation of the Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) that AEB be required on all light vehicles.
Footpaths should be places for people. Victoria Walks strongly opposes the use of the footpath by vehicles that are capable of high speeds like bicycles and electric scooters. The footpath should be a place where people feel safe and comfortable to walk, including older people and those with a disability.
Most of these 10 steps can be taken immediately or in the short term and won’t cost a lot of money. As the Australian Automobile Association says, “Every month we delay in accelerating an appropriate response must be recognised as contributing to preventable deaths and injuries.”