What can we do about drink (drunk) drivers

The Australian Associated Press writes: Mother ‘forgives’ driver after fatal crash. The newspapers want to emphasise the personal tragedy, which it is. But if we respond as if it could not be avoided, it will be repeated. While stupidity is perhaps innate in the human condition, the likelihood of such crashes can be reduced with public policy.

The fatal crash has sparked a renewed push for a road rules overhaul in NSW.

Sydney University professor David Levinson says the NSW government should look at lower residential speed limits and tougher drink-driving penalties.

“We need a more serious response to driving under the influence. It’s not taken seriously enough in our society,” Prof Levinson told AAP on Monday.

“Speed limits are also relatively high. If you hit someone at a high speed you do more damage and are more likely to kill them.”

This weekend’s tragedy reinforces the major threat to pedestrians  is cars, even when we are on the footpath. This is not a problem of distracted pedestrians, or bicyclists, or reflectivity, or waving flags, it is a problem of cars and their drivers. Cars are leaving the road because their drivers aren’t paying appropriate attention, they are distracted by devices and they are under the influence of all sorts of toxic chemicals, including, most notably, alcohol. So long as intoxicating drugs like alcohol are available, and cars are available, someone will mix the two in a witches’ brew with entirely foreseeable results.

Evidence is that increased enforcement and lowered blood alcohol limits improve the situation. In New South Wales that limit is 0.05%. In Norway, perhaps the safest country for road users, including pedestrians, the limit is 0.02%. Limits don’t matter if they are not enforced, and while New  South Wales does far more enforcement than most of the United States, it is obviously not enough to prevent tragedies like this.

The second issue is speeding. This is related to speed limits of course. The map shows the location of the crash was Bettington Road in Oatlands, near a modest bend in the road leading to an uphill section, a road with a footpath on only one side — the other side was a golf club (with a pretty clear desire line for a footpath on that side). The speed limit here does not appear to be posted (perusing Google Street View, implying the default urban speed limit of 50 km/h (~30 mph)).

The issue with speed is not only the point quoted above, it is well established that hitting a person at a higher speed does more damage and increases the likelihood of death, it is also that higher speed lowers the time available to reach, and thus increases the likelihood of collision in the first place.

Undoubtedly the evidence will show the driver was exceeding the speed limit. But again, enforcement can lower the amount of speeding, and thus the likelihood of such crashes. Automated speed enforcement cameras are shown again and again to be effective. They even get public support despite the same members of the public getting ticketed. While one hates to have a society where everything is monitored, you lose your right to privacy when you enter a public road.

If we actually care about human lives, we should do more about traffic safety.

 

 

 

Published by David M Levinson

Prof. David Levinson teaches at the School of Civil Engineering at the University of Sydney, where he leads TransportLab and the Transport Engineering group.

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