January 08, 2006 | Graham

Wanted: a politician with the courage to be conservative.

Most Australians would be insulted to be called “conservative”, and while some Australian politicians, like John Howard, are conveniently branded as “conservative” just about all of them have a bias towards “progress”. But what happens when so-called “progress” becomes at best merely “change” or at worst “regress”? Name me one politician who is prepared to say “It’s the way the world works – there is nothing we can do about it?”
The immediate prompt for these musings is the reaction of Queensland politicians Peter Beattie and Anna Bligh to the Christmas Road Toll. Beattie suggests increasing road fines, while Bligh is promoting curfews for young drivers and confiscation of cars of repeat drink drivers (amongst other things).
Will these solutions work? Is the problem severe enough to warrant them?
I don’t pretend to have the complete answer, but the facts of the matter are that if you are going to allow intelligent monkeys to hurtle around at any speed in vehicles weighing around a ton, some of them are going to be involved in accidents and die.
If you seriously wanted to fix the problem you would mandate push bikes for everyone, and the death toll would plummet. So would your political popularity. So death and accident are unavoidable. The only issue is how much better we can do, given existing circumstances, and this can only be judged by reference to benchmarks.
The first benchmark is whether the toll of 19 is out of the ordinary judged by previous years. The answer to this appears to be “No”. According to yesterday’s Courier Mail this death toll has been matched or bettered (?) in two out of the previous ten years – 23 in 1996/97 and 19 in 2003/04. What’s more, taking into account population growth, argualy the 1997/98 figure of 18 is the equivalent of 19 today.
The average road toll for the 10 year period covered by the Courier is 13.7, with 5 years under it and 5 over it, and a more or less normal distribution of results, suggesting that this Christmas-New Year holiday period is the statistical status quo.
Another benchmark is how well other states perform on road fatalities. Given the small samples, it’s not that appropriate to deal with just the Christmas-New Year period, but rather the whole of the year, and to be comparable the figures have to be per capita, or even better, per kilometre travelled.
I can’t find the most recent figures on the ABS site, but I can find figures for 2003. Per capita Queensland is exactly on the Australian average of 8.2 per 100,000. Only Victoria (6.7) and the ACT (3.4) have lower rates. It’s a similar story when comparing statistics per registered vehicles. The Australian figures don’t appear to include comparisons per kilometre travelled, but given the size of Queensland one suspects that we might do relatively better on that measure, and Victoria and the ACT much worse.
However, they do have international comparisons based on kilometres travelled, and they are good news for Australians. The OECD average is 1 person killed per 100 million vehicle kms travelled, and Australia, at 0.9 is 10% better, meaning, given Queensland’s exactly average performance, that we do 10% better than the OECD average.
There may be room for some improvement in Queensland’s road safety, but the statistics suggest that it is not much, and that drastic measures certainly aren’t justified. What we need is a politician with the guts to say that this is about as good as it gets.

Posted by Graham at 2:18 pm | Comments (6) |
Filed under: Australian Politics


  1. I think it’s the job of politicians in some small sense to be progressive, to tirelessly probe for solutions to problems, or at least ways in which the impact of the problems can be reduced. I’m not sure being conservative on road safety is courageous as you suggest, or just an act of political capitulation.

    Comment by Guy — January 9, 2006 @ 7:59 am

  2. But this isn’t about policy, it’s about politics. And as a political tactic it’s pretty much a no-lose situation.This kind of thing is just Beattie feeding the chooks, as predictable as an opposition leader promising to get tough on crime if elected to office.

    Comment by Robert Merkel — January 10, 2006 @ 10:19 am

  3. This is an area of public safety that definitely needs more than the usual merry -go-round of discussion papers, parliamentary debate and then yet more nauseating debate. Meanwhile, young lives are lost.
    There are obviously areas of human activity where legislation will not have any impact in decreasing road fatalities. Human nature can’t be regulated – but some regulation though laws on the culture of driving (especially for youth) can have some impact.
    But there are definitely remedies that can decrease holiday road fatalities. In NZ I believe young drivers are under strict curfews.
    I see so many young and inexperienced drivers with cars that I think are way too powerful for them to drive.
    We wouldn’t give them to have powerful firearms to play with, but we do allow them vehicles that are just as dangerous.
    Perhaps I’ll lob in an opinionated submission to the Qld state government who are calling for feedback on its discussion paper “Queensland Youth – on the road and in control”. Feedback is required by 10 March 2006. Click on : http://www.transport.qld.gov.au/youngdrivers
    But at the end of the day (what a wonderful political cliché) this issue needs a hard nosed and bipartisan political approach.

    Comment by Victor Hart — January 10, 2006 @ 9:44 pm

  4. Victor,
    Thanks for the ideas. Before getting too excited about New Zealand you should have a look at their statistics. For every 10,000 registered vehicles they have 1.7 fatalities per year, while we have 1.4 – a significant difference. They don’t appear to keep fatalities per kilometre driven statistics, but given the relative sizes of their country and ours I would think that the toll measured on that basis is even more in our favour. So they might have curfews for young drivers, but you’d need a pretty sophisticated argument to prove that this was effective.

    Comment by Graham Young — January 10, 2006 @ 10:05 pm

  5. Beattie and Bligh’s knee jerk reactions are exactly what is wrong with politics in Australia. That is, they pull supposed solutions out of thin air, hold a media conference and then forget the problem. Unless the media persists with the issue in which case the knee jerk thoughts result in yet more legislation which achieves absolutely nothing. Curfews? Please! Maybe for politicians, that might help.
    Clearly there are improvements that can be made to help reduce the road toll.
    Anyone seen the road just south of Coff’s Harbour? There are more crosses and floral tributes there than anywhere else I’ve seen. It’s horrifying to see that and continue to hear State and Federal MP’s and Ministers continue blaming each other. Result? Nothing gets done but the Ministers can point elsewhere.
    Fix the bloody roads instead of sitting on surpluses. Force vehicle manufacturers to design and produce safer vehicles. Do something other than bicker, gloat and avoid responsibility

    Comment by ross chippendale — January 12, 2006 @ 6:23 am

  6. it’s not progressive to push a ‘law & order’ or ‘tough on crime’ agenda. more of the same thing we’ve already got is not new. nor is it really news.
    here in sa, government announcements along similar lines have been countered with the unsurprising: “we need to spend more money on roads”.
    a more ‘progressive’ approach might be to address such complex issues with a more nuanced matrix of responses. hardly sound-bite friendly though.
    politicians are consumate experts (or at least their advisers usually are) of “what the public want to hear” – if not what we need, or what would be ‘good’ for us [whatever that might mean ;)]

    Comment by maelorin — January 13, 2006 @ 1:16 pm

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