Of all the things we do in the Transport cluster, working to reduce deaths and injuries on NSW roads is one of the most important. As we face a rising road toll for the first time in decades, we take a look at how new vehicle technologies will get us back on track towards zero.
Since the first motorised vehicles were introduced in Australia around 1900, the car has changed everything – helping us conquer distances, build our economy and move more easily.
Now, with more drivers on the road than ever, keeping motorists, passengers and pedestrians safe is even more challenging. A century of road toll data tells the story of that challenge.
Up until the 1970s, rises in the road toll happened when the economy was booming and more people could afford cars – and more cars on the road equals more risk.
It’s crazy to think that back in 1970 you didn’t have to wear a seatbelt or even be sober to get behind the wheel. Over 1,300 people lost their lives on NSW roads that year.
From that point on, you start to see the positive impact of the really big road safety initiatives – seatbelts in 1971, random breath testing in 1982 and speed cameras in 1991.
Through the 80s, 90s and 2000s, vehicles started getting safer thanks to things like air bags, anti-lock braking systems and electronic stability control, reducing the chance of fatal crashes even further.
NSW has also led the world when it comes to encouraging safer driving through public education campaigns. You probably remember the famous ‘pinkie’ speeding campaign in 2007 that challenged reckless ‘macho’ behaviour behind the wheel.
And the ‘Plan B’ drink driving campaign, which takes a real but humorous approach to encourage people to think about other options for getting home after a night out – from the sensible options like taxis, a lift from a loved one or public transport, to the fictional ones like the DeLorean time machine from Back to the Future.
These are just some of the initiatives that helped push the road toll down to a record low of 307 in 2014.
A tech turnaround
So, after 45 years of reducing the road toll through great initiatives that promoted safety, it has been on the rise again since 2015. Sadly, 392 people lost their lives on our roads last year. That’s unacceptable.
The changes that will make the biggest impact now come down to drivers. It’s humans – your dad, your sister, your neighbour – who need to change how they drive.
This is hard to do, but our 2021 Road Safety Plan aims to get the numbers down.
It’s jam–packed with ways to help us achieve our aspirational target of zero deaths and serious injuries on NSW roads by 2056.
Some of the highlights include upgrading road infrastructure in country areas to increase safety, stronger penalties for drink drivers, more roadside drug testing and new laws to tackle mobile phone usage using cameras.
And we’ll continue the excellent work being done to educate the community on road safety to change attitudes, perceptions and behaviour, like the Towards Zero campaign that pushes you to really consider that every life lost on our roads is a person – a parent, a child, a friend – while encouraging drivers to make better driving decisions.
And the Saving Lives on Country Roads campaign, which aims to challenge misconceptions about rural and regional road safety. It also addresses sobering stats like the fact deaths are four times more likely to happen on country roads than city roads, despite a lower population in regional NSW.
The future is now
All of these things will help to reduce deaths on our roads. But what would it take to have a truly safe road system?
Of course we’d need all our driving environments to be designed for total safety but we’d also need drivers that always follow the road rules, never take risks, never speed, are never impaired or distracted and never make a mistake.
Sounds impossible, right? But in fact, that’s exactly what should happen when we take the human out of the equation and the car does the driving. It’s why connected and automated vehicles offer such exciting opportunities for improving safety and helping us achieve zero deaths and injuries on our roads.
While driverless vehicles may seem like decades away, in reality the work to prepare for these technologies is happening right now, right here in NSW.
Evan Walker heads up the Transport for NSW Smart Innovation Centre and explained how the Transport cluster is leading the way.
“We’re running a whole range of trials with different levels of automation, different types of vehicles and different road environments.
“It’s helping us understand how to prepare road infrastructure, regulations and the community for their introduction,” he said.
You may not know this, but since 2013 we’ve been running one of the largest and most important connected heavy vehicle trials in the world – the Illawarra-based Cooperative Intelligent Transport Initiative.
The initiative is all about helping trucks and freight vehicles talk to one another, so that drivers can receive important safety alerts from other vehicles as well as infrastructure, like traffic lights.
Earlier this year, we extended the trial to everyday mum and dad drivers to help pave the way to a future where more cars can talk to each other on the road and help keep us safe.
We’re also making exciting ground in the driverless public transport space.
Last year we launched the State’s first trial of fully automated shuttle buses at Sydney Olympic Park and the shuttle’s very first customers jumped on board to experience this driverless technology first hand in September!
Taking it regional
Coffs Harbour and Armidale will both play host to their very own automated shuttle trials later this year.
Each of the trials will begin in a more controlled environment before moving to busier streets to take locals, students and tourists between key services like shopping centres and public transport hubs.
For example, the Coffs Harbour trial will begin testing on the Northern Breakwall between Muttonbird Island and the Coffs Harbour International Marina before entering the Marian Grove Retirement Village to help move residents around the complex.
And after passing a number of safety checks, the shuttle will take locals on the bus route from the Coffs Harbour CBD to help better connect local precincts and test the integration of the shuttle with existing public transport options.
Evan said the focus for these regional trials is to understand how technology can provide new transport options for our customers in regional NSW.
While these trials take place in low speed environments, TfNSW is also looking at ways technology can improve safety in higher speed regional road environments.
“Regional NSW is a really unique driving environment,” he said.
“From a safety perspective, there are huge distances and more high-speed roads. There’s also a widely dispersed population that may not have access to public transport. “Using technology to keep another eye on the road has the potential to make a real difference in making roads safer in regional NSW. That’s really exciting.”
Driverless vehicles 101
Connected vehicles use wireless technology to send and receive messages to road infrastructure like traffic signals as well as other vehicles, with a focus on improving traffic flow and preventing crashes.
Automated vehicles perform some or all of the tasks normally done by the driver. Many cars on the road today already include automated features such as automatic parking, adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking and lane-keep assist.
But are these vehicles safe?
Earlier this year, a fatal crash involving a driverless Uber in the United States made worldwide news headlines. So, you may find yourself wondering if it is safe to trial connected and automated vehicles here.
You can tell your friends and family that in NSW, we have strict legislation in place to ensure public safety. After all, reducing deaths and increasing road safety is what we’re all about.
Bernard Carlon, who leads the Centre for Road Safety explained our approach.
“We first trial these vehicles in low traffic, low speed environments like Sydney Olympic Park,” said Bernard.
“The trials on motorways are only for partially automated vehicles, so there is still a driver behind the wheel at all times.
“At the end of the day, it’s careful trials and ongoing research and development that will give us the information we need to introduce connected and automated vehicles safely.”