Road toll down, for most

The western calendar marks a reset point for most people. Time to review and renew, to do a little better.

It’s also time to reset a marker that’s a media staple on the slow news days between Christmas Eve and the Times Square ball drop. Yet it’s one to which we seem inured most of the year.

It’s the road toll, that disturbing metric of our love affair with the car. Our seductively comfortable, convenient, well marketed cars.

Victoria’s provisional road toll for 2013 was a record low 242 – down from 282 in 2012 and down for the sixth year in a row. Cyclist fatalities were thankfully so low that they didn’t rate a mention in the police media release.

We’re doing better thanks partly to safer roads and cars, better policing and education/behaviour change programs. But overall, it’s better than lousy if you take a wide view.

In 2011, Australia’s leading cause of death was heart disease which claimed over 21,000 lives while drowning [PDF] accounted for 315 and Afghanistan 11. The national road toll that year was, by comparison, a large 1277.

Nationally, road deaths to November 2013 [PDF] were down 9 per cent overall to 1086 and down in all main categories of road user – drivers, passengers, pedestrians and motorbikes.

But one category was up nationally, and up a massive 16 per cent, and that’s cyclists. To the end of November, 43 cyclists had died on Australian roads. NSW and Queensland were hard hit. There were at least six more in December so that number will go higher.

The equation goes More cyclists = safer because drivers learn to deal with riders and such critical mass can’t be ignored in allocating scarce road space. Clearly we’re not there yet.

Nor is our attitude to driving looking good when the pre-Christmas blitz racked up 15,000 driving offences in two weeks in Victoria alone. Top of the list were speeding (7124), driving an unregistered vehicle (2109), driving while using a mobile phone (1930) and disobeying traffic signals (1360). Handy stats next time you’re accosted at a party about scofflaw cyclists. Let alone Saturday’s reported rampage on Beach Road.

Traffic offences speak volumes about our attitudes when we’re effectively in charge of a lethal weapon. But they flag an even higher price tag to society.

What we don’t reset with the road toll each year are the costs of road funding, resource use, air pollution and injuries, nor the opportunity cost of failing to mode switch to active/public transport. And this is where cycling can make a real difference.

Cycling has the potential to deliver an enormous bottom line, freeing up road space for cars and trucks that really need it, busting obesity and nudging heart disease, improving air quality and individual mobility. Let alone getting to work on time. More careful driving is safer for drivers, passengers and pedestrians and putting people back on streets makes communities safer. It’s win/win/win/win/win …

And then there’s the fun and freedom of utility cycling, which are priceless. Only cyclists take the long way home.

But many potential riders don’t take the next step because the roads don’t feel safe. In effect, our driving constrains the potential payoff.

The Pulitzer Centre estimates 1.2 million people die on the world’s roads each year and lauds Australia’s success in curbing road deaths, so we shouldn’t sell the 2013 result short. But if we assess cars as safer than cycling, it’s time to rethink the breadth of the community costs we’re including in the risk assessment.

And then imagine the compliance we’d get from cars at intersection bike boxes if we adopted the Brazilian approach to pedestrian crossing enforcement:

Have a great, safe 2014.

Edit: The Age has some useful stats here, and the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics runs the Australian Road Deaths Database here.

Thoughts?

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