Rising SA road toll a crying shame

An alarming spike in road fatalities across the state demands examination of driver attitudes and consideration of tougher penalties, argues Morry Bailes.

Apr 05, 2023, updated Apr 05, 2023
Photo: AAP/Jane Dempster

Photo: AAP/Jane Dempster

It’s been a horror start to the year on our roads. According to SAPOL, 71 deaths occurred in 2022.  Early April 2023 and SA road fatalities already number 41. Fatalities are alarmingly high and if extrapolated out, will result in the worst year for decades. What are we doing wrong?

Whilst we know that speed is a major contributor, the rise and rise of motorists who treat road rules with contempt is noticeable. Driving, or being in or on a car or motorbike, is the most dangerous thing we will do in our day. As our motor vehicles are made to drive faster and faster, why have we become so blasé?

As a community, we have developed sophisticated road rules, contained in both The Road Traffic Act and Australian Road Rules, and our Summary Courts are full of matters prosecuted by the Police for alleged breaches of road rules. However from the outset it must be said that law does not replace culture. What we seem to have developed is a highly aggressive, devil may care attitude, perfectly captured in recent dash-cam footage depicting two drivers, both refusing to yield.

With 90% of drivers considering themselves above average, let’s examine some recent driving trends and what we should do if we wish to reverse the disturbing start to what seems like a year of death on our roads. It may also remind that half of us are actually below average.

It seems like not that long ago failing to stop at the scene of a motor vehicle accident was a relative rarity. It is now disturbingly frequent. The Road Traffic Act provides for an obligation on a driver involved in an accident to stop immediately at the scene, and render all possible assistance to whomever may be injured or killed. There are also obligations to exchange particulars irrespective of injury, and to report an accident to Police, in the case of injury or death, within 90 minutes. It is a matter of grave concern when drivers leave the scene, as has been reported in a number of recent hit and runs. It points to a cultural shift, towards attempting to escape responsibility rather than face it.

No doubt many who flee the scene of accidents do so because they have driven under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and have been speeding or driving carelessly, but the cowardice to leave a person injured or dying, in favour of trying to save your own skin is reprehensible. Sadly though, it is a growing phenomenon. Penalties for such conduct can include imprisonment, but increasing maximum terms of imprisonment, given the prevalence of such offending, may be required to increase deterrence and protect members of the public.

Another offence committed daily on our roads, and which also points to a cultural disintegration of our driving standards is the failure to indicate. Indication on our roads when changing direction or lane is not optional, but it may as well be. The rule seems observed more in its disregard than in its adherence. It applies when moving from a stationary position onto a roadway, where five seconds of indication is required before driving. It applies when changing lanes and turning corners, and it can apply exiting a roundabout. Public car parks are public roads, and the same rules apply, including indicating.

All the rules aside, it is just common courtesy to tell other motorists and pedestrians what you’re doing. When offending becomes habit, our laws should respond by increases in penalties so drivers will learn that it’s not worth it. After all how hard is it to turn an indicator on?

Speeding is a perennial problem, but with our modern motor vehicles designed to travel faster and faster, it is the primary cause of motor accidents and fatalities on our roads. At times the scrambling for position entering onto our expressways and highways resembles a Formula 1 grid start. We must remind ourselves that driving is not a race, it’s a mode of transport. Exceeding the speed limit at all is an offence. However once a driver exceeds a speed limit by a lot, it becomes an offence of speeding dangerously. Driving at a speed or in a manner dangerous to the public will lead, if proven, to mandatory disqualification and steep fines.

Although imprisonment is an option, it is rarely imposed by the Courts. Given speed is the number one cause of motor vehicle accidents, the Parliament lately responded by introducing an offence to address extreme speed that can constitute a criminal offence and can result in gaol terms. Extreme speed however has limits to its definition and therefore to its application.

In a recent example, police allege a learner driver recorded a speed of 253 kms per hour in a 110km zone, which if proved means that driver was exceeding the speed limit by 143 kmph. The danger to the public is extreme, and fines and periods of disqualification may simply not be enough to reflect the seriousness of such conduct. Why should other road users have to put up with it?

With the dreadful state of our road accident numbers, surely we don’t need reminding that we are, all of us, under an obligation to drive to survive. That is to say, to drive defensively anticipating that mistakes will be made. The principle of driving defensively, a principle that has long standing application in our courts of law, has for many of us it seems gone out the window.

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The point is, until we have driverless cars, humans will drive and control motor vehicles, and as humans we are very much imperfect. We will make errors of judgement on our roads. Our driving ought to take into account that errors made by others will inevitably occur, as we ourselves will make them. We should drive with that expectation and defend ourselves and our passengers from harm.

That leads to a further feature on our roads which now is seemingly ingrained in some drivers psyches, and that is to react with anger when a mistake is made, or when offence is taken. Road rage has become a thing often reported by police and by media. There is no specific offence of road rage in South Australia, however there are  offences for driving dangerously, speeding, and misusing a motor vehicle, although the latter offence is aimed more at hoon driving, or street racing.

The sheer intolerance of many drivers in the present age is confronting. Instances of motorists hurling verbal abuse, screaming hysterically at other drivers even though they themselves may be in error, or driving recklessly to prove a point is almost de rigueur.

There is no place in our society for those who endanger their own lives and the lives of others just to highlight another person’s perceived wrongs. It is unfortunately another element that has wormed its way into our driving culture that can prove fatal in some circumstances. It is otherwise an offensive loss of civility in a community, the majority of whom abhor such conduct. It should not be tolerated, and the legislature might consider some specific offences to help stamp it out.

File photo: Tony Lewis/InDaily

Sometimes it is perfectly obvious that such behaviour is influenced by drugs or alcohol, which is another major killer on our roads. We used to have a drink and drive approach, but good public awareness campaigns, advances in technology and good policing reduced our numbers of drivers who drank dramatically. Unfortunately there are now more drug drivers than drink drivers. Sometimes of course, they’re both.

The South Australian Government say that on average over the past five years, 20% of drivers or riders killed on our roads tested positive to drugs. There is a direct link between those dreadful statistics and an uptick in societal use of methyl-amphetamine, but also of other drugs including MDMA and cannabis, all of which impair judgement when driving. If you’re caught drink driving, or with drugs in your system when driving, the penalties include instant license disqualification and steep fines. But it doesn’t always seem like sufficient deterrent.

It does make you wonder if with high range drink or drug driving, the outcome ought to include penalties of imprisonment that can be suspended, enabling police to immediately arrest an offender. That can currently occur in instances of driving under the influence, which is a more serious offence than merely driving with the prescribed concentration of alcohol, or with a prescribed drug. But aside from disqualification and fines, we still seem to treat drink and drug drivers with relative leniency in South Australia. With the current spate of deaths on our roads, and the direct correlation with driving deaths and substance abuse, it may be time to toughen up.

Driving a car is like driving a weapon that can kill, injure and maim. We have a death toll spiralling out of control, and yet we seem too tolerant of bad behaviour on our roads. Our heavy handed approach with gun control is supported by most. Perhaps it is time to get a bit more heavy handed with how we deal with the most dangerous threat confronting us, killer drivers on our roads. No amount of cajoling by police seems to help.

Assistant Commissioner Ian Parrott has been vocal in his dismay at our current road toll numbers. He recently related the incredulity of police tasked with the horrendous job of doing the ‘death knock’ – knocking on a family’s door to break the news that a spouse, or father, or mother, or child, is dead as a result of a motor vehicle accident – and going back on patrol only to witness an instance of the same type of driving that has just cost another person’s life. He put it in slightly less diplomatic terms. He further described our current attitude towards our appalling driving statistics as apathetic, and of our poor driving said: ‘To say that is disappointing is an understatement, it’s a disgrace’.

Whilst what the Assistant Commissioner says is spot on, there doesn’t appear to be any demonstrable improvement in our driving attitudes. Bolstering the role and effectiveness of the criminal justice system might be what needs to change. Whilst these motor vehicle deaths may be ‘accidents’, they also often amount to criminal negligence or criminal recklessness. If we started treating the entitlement to drive a car or motorbike as a privilege not a right, if we treated what we drive as lethal objects and what we do when we grievously disobey road rules as criminal, we may bring about the change in culture we so desperately need.

In Australia in 2021, homicide per capita of population was .086 in 100,000. In 2020 motor accident deaths in our country were 4.6 in 100,000. We remain horrified by instances of homicide and rightly preoccupied by prevailing levels of family and domestic violence. Meantime far, far more die on our roads. With dramatically declining road behaviour and driving standards, with road civility at an all time low, and with road deaths at an appalling level only three months into the new year, laws must toughen and the legislature needs to further respond.

Morry Bailes is Senior Lawyer and Business Advisor to Tindall Gask Bentley Lawyers, past president of the Law Council of Australia and a past president of the Law Society of South Australia.

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