Jailing child-killing drivers won’t stop the slaughter

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This month, Samuel Davidson was sentenced to at least 21 years in jail for killing four children with his ute on a residential street in Western Sydney. They had been walking to the local shops to buy ice cream. He had been driving drunk at 130 km/h.

Earlier this year, Jacob Donn is alleged to have killed two children with his car in Wellington in regional New South Wales. They had been walking home from the swimming pool. And last month, a motorist hit and killed a five-year-old girl on a pedestrian crossing in Sydney’s west.

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A sobering 308 people were killed whilst walking along New South Wales’ streets from 2015 to 2019. That’s five times the state’s COVID fatalities. Twenty of the victims were aged under 17. A further 45 children were killed whilst being driven in a motor vehicle. Thousands more were seriously injured.

I’ll leave it for others to debate whether Samuels’ 21-year sentence is just. But will it help stop the continued slaughter of children on our neighbourhood streets? Was Davidson deterred by past punishments for vehicular homicide? [And notably the maximum punishment for vehicular manslaughter is 10 years in jail, while manslaughter without a vehicle can result in 25 years behind bars.]

Media reporting of such killings usually focuses on the behaviour of the driver – and very often blames the victim(s). But do other factors make these killings more likely in the first place? Why was it even possible for Davidson to drive an oversized, two-tonne ute along a residential street at 130 km/h? Why was the street as wide as a racing track? Do Australian street design guidelines give too much priority to traffic flow and speed, and too little to children’s safety? Have they evolved to offset the growth in danger from ever-increasing average vehicle sizes and weights?

Parramatta Council has since installed a guardrail where Davidson mounted the footpath – but this merely reinforces the impression of a racing track. If anything, it encourages more speed.

Best-practice road safety in recent decades has adopted a ‘safe system’ approach. This acknowledges that humans – whether driving, walking or riding – will inevitably have moments of inattention, and many will do stupid and illegal things. So, as well as trying to prevent mistakes and dangerous behaviour, it aims to minimise their consequences.

Through a safe system approach, both Oslo and Helsinki have progressed from dozens of pedestrian deaths every year to zero. Does no one in Oslo ever drink-drive? Does no Finnish child ever forget to look before stepping off the footpath? Of course not – people in these cities still make mistakes and do stupid things. However, pedestrians are unlikely to be killed because of such acts, primarily because the authorities have implemented measures to reduce urban traffic speeds. A driver hitting a pedestrian at 50 km/h – the default residential speed limit in all Australian states – has a 90% chance of killing them. But a driver hitting a pedestrian at 30 km/h has only a 10% chance of killing them.

The New South Wales government recently implemented 30 km/h zones in Liverpool and Manly – a small but welcome step. But speed limit signs alone have been shown to have very little effect on urban traffic speed. Enforcement is required and streets need to be redesigned to discourage and inhibit unsafe speeds. The long, straight streets of racing track proportions found in most Australian suburbs and regional towns are an open invitation to those motorists who get a thrill out of speeding. They distort motorists’ perception of their own speedas do SUVs with a high driving position – making it difficult for even the conscientious majority to stay under the limit.

Every year that state governments continue to delay implementing a default 30 km/h residential speed limit will mean more preventable child deaths and injuries, and more devastated families. At the same time, national street design guidelines need to be revised to prioritise children’s safety over traffic flow and speed.

These measures might make driving a little less convenient for some, but that’s actually a good thing: the less convenient driving is, and the safer and more convenient other transport modes are, the less traffic there will be – and who would object to less traffic? And any inconvenience would be trivial compared to the restrictions Australians have largely accepted to prevent COVID deaths.

Opinion surveys repeatedly show most voters want more civilised urban traffic speeds – which would also reduce traffic noise, a major cause of sleep disruption. For the vocal minority who want to drive fast, there are plenty of racing tracks and motorways, where they are much less likely to kill innocent children.

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