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Road fatalities put vehicle safety in spotlight

Civic duty: Honda offers a ‘collision mitigation brake system’ on its Civic hatch overseas, although when tested by Euro NCAP last year it was found to have not performed as well as similar systems from Mercedes, Volvo and VW.

Road deaths are falling but industry, regulators urged to do more on safety

13 Jun 2014

POLITICIANS, safety authorities and motorist groups have welcomed the latest figures which show road deaths in Australia have fallen 25 per cent over the past decade, pointing to major advances in vehicle design and technology as key factors behind the improvement.

Better road infrastructure and widespread public education campaigns targeting driver behaviour are also cited as significant reasons behind the reduction in road deaths, which over the past 10 years (to 2013) have dropped 24.6 per cent overall at an average rate of 3.4 per cent.

The figures, which are contained in a statistical report released last week by the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE), show that when Australia’s population increase of 16.1 per cent is taken into account the reduction in fatalities has actually fallen by as much as 35 per cent.

The biggest reductions were in New South Wales, Tasmania, Victoria and the ACT, and while drivers aged between 17 and 25 are still over-represented in the statistics (accounting for 19.2 per cent of all fatalities), the ‘trend rate’ of decrease over the decade for this age group was the strongest across the board at 8.2 per cent.

Road fatalities of people aged 17-25 are now about half what they were a decade ago.

In contrast, the 65 years and over age group has the highest rate of annual fatalities per population, accounting for 14.4 per cent of the population but 23.1 per cent of fatalities.

Of course, the proportion of people aged 65 and over has increased over the years – 30 years ago this age group accounted for 10.1 per cent of the population – meaning their exposure to road use has also increased.

The report has put the spotlight back on safety standards in Australia and the level of equipment fitted to new motor vehicles that work to prevent a crash occurring and, in the event of a collision, protect occupants and others potentially involved, such as pedestrians and, increasingly, cyclists.

With mandatory fitment of electronic stability control (ESC) required on all passenger cars since November last year, interest groups and industry bodies – and even one of the leading truck brands in Australia, Hino – are now urging commercial vehicle brands to follow suit ahead of regulations coming later in the decade.

The federal government announced in October last year that ESC and brake assist systems (BAS) would become compulsory on newly introduced light commercial vehicles from November 2015, but there is no mandate applying to all new light commercials until November 2017 – too far away, according to state motoring clubs such as the RAC in WA, among others.

With ESC now required on passenger vehicles, pressure is mounting on car-makers and regulators for the universal adoption of the latest crash-avoidance technology, particularly autonomous emerging braking (AEB) systems that can identify an imminent collision, warn the driver and, if necessary, brake automatically.

Leading the campaign for change are the influential, independent safety watchdogs ANCAP in Australia and ENCAP in Europe.

While both organisations are now routinely calling on car manufacturers to fit more life-saving advanced safety technology as standard equipment, ENCAP has already made AEB an integral part of its crash-test protocol assessment.

ENCAP cites figures that suggest that AEB systems can reduce rear-end crashes by more than 25 per cent, while the European Commission also points to the massive economic benefits that can flow from reduced congestion caused by accidents.

In Australia, all levels of government are working to the National Road Safety Strategy 2011-2020 (NRSS), which sets out agreed road safety goals, objectives and actions and has the specific target of reducing the annual number of road deaths and serious injuries by at least 30 per cent by 2020.

An ‘implementation status report’ on the NRSS released in November last year shows that much of the work undertaken to date is still only at an early stage.

There is a heavy emphasis on road infrastructure, speed enforcement and licensing requirements, while a variety of measures are in progress targeting motor vehicles.

Work is nearing completion for an Australian Design Rule (ADR) for BAS systems for passenger cars, while a regulatory impact statement is being developed for mandatory anti-lock brakes (ABS) on motorcycles and lane-departure warning systems for heavy vehicles.

ABS becomes mandatory on heavy trucks and buses from July this year, and work is continuing on an ADR that requires ABS/load proportioning brake systems for heavy trailers.

Talks are aimed to adopting nationally agreed best-practice fleet purchasing policies (including minimum five-star ANCAP rating requirements), while investigations are under way in areas such as incentives relating to safer vehicle purchases (targeting young people and their parents, for example) and minimising driver distraction from in-vehicle devices.

Vehicle manufacturers are also being encouraged to “develop industry codes of practice committing to incorporation of vehicle safety features, while ensuring that safety features are not packaged only with luxury or comfort features”.

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