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Road Safety

Horses accounted for a significant number of deaths and injuries on the roads in the 19th century, but motor cars, which appeared in the early 20th century, presented an even greater problem. Melbourne's first known motor car road death occurred in 1905, when a car driven by confectionery millionaire Macpherson Robertson knocked down Thomas Hall in Fitzroy. Police, usually on foot or bicycle, were often powerless to apprehend the speeding motorist. In the 1920s the number of people killed and injured was higher in relation to the number of vehicles on the road than at any other time in Victorian history. After World War II, as the numbers of cars multiplied, the 'road toll', as it came to be called, rose alarmingly. Within five years the number of people killed or injured on Australian roads equalled the number of casualties in the war, with deaths in Victoria rising from 260 in 1945 to a peak of 1065 in 1970. In the 1940s and 1950s pedestrian casualties far outnumbered motorists, but by the mid-1960s drivers almost equalled other groups among the victims of road trauma.

Between the 1950s and 1970s, road safety was redefined as a medical and social problem, rather than a moral and legal one. Drivers' organisations such as the RACV argued that safety was a matter of good road manners. The National Safety Council's slogan read, 'Courtesy is catching'. But by the late 1950s courtesy was not catching on quickly enough to curb the rising death toll. In 1957 chief secretary Arthur Rylah appointed a young pathologist, Dr John Birrell, as police surgeon, with a special responsibility for the investigation of road accidents. Birrell observed a sharp rise in the numbers of serious accidents in the hour after Melbourne's notorious six o'clock swill, concerns reinforced by the discovery of high concentrations of alcohol in the blood of many victims. A gifted and indefatigable publicist, Birrell campaigned tirelessly for the introduction of compulsory random breathalyser testing of motorists. Its introduction in 1976 saw an immediate drop in the numbers of accidents and deaths, although other factors, including the economic recession, which cut the volume of traffic, possibly played a role.

Since the passage of the Road Traffic Act 1935, Victoria had gradually extended the scope of State regulation of road traffic: the Traffic Commission (1956), its revision of the Road Traffic Regulations (1958) and eventually the creation of the Road Safety and Traffic Authority (1971) were important legislative landmarks. Legislation requiring the wearing of seat belts (1969) and introducing a points demerit system (1971) reflected a trend to treat road safety on a preventative, rather than a punitive, basis. Established in 1984, the Transport Accident Commission (TAC), financed from motorists' third-party insurance contributions and charged with the payment of no-fault compensation to victims, has mixed hard-hitting television advertising ('If you drink and drive you're a bloody idiot') with a campaign to eliminate accident 'black spots' and generous sponsorship of research on road safety to further reduce the toll, although each new gain has tended to be followed by a relapse.

Melbourne's ever more expensive, coercive and intrusive methods of enhancing road safety, including radar guns, red-light cameras and heavy fines, have met with a minimum of public resistance, attesting both to the enduring strength of a long Victorian tradition of utilitarian reform and to the readiness of motorists to trade away other personal liberties in order to secure that most sacred of freedoms, the right to drive.

Graeme Davison

Davison, Graeme, Car wars: how the car won our hearts and conquered our cities, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2004. Details