Australia’s road system had been designed to benefit drivers to the detriment of everyone else using the roads, such as vulnerable pedestrians, said Professor Ivers, who is the head of the School of Public Health and Community Medicine at the University of NSW.
“We have made it too easy to drive: Evidence suggests that we should be doing it the other way around so we have a safe environment for the community,” she said.
She called for a move to a zero blood-alcohol limit, the abolition of alcohol advertising, and the redesign of streets to increase their amenity and to slow drivers down, by introducing speed calming measures and lower speed limits where there were likely to be children on footpaths and other vulnerable users.
Discussing a move to lower the blood alcohol limit was “an important conversation to have”, said executive director of the Centre for Road Safety Bernard Carlon. But he said the level of community support needed to be tested first.
There was strong evidence to show lower alcohol limits saved lives. “The lower the level, the lower the risk,” said Mr Carlon.
NSW had made significant changes to reduce alcohol-related casualties. Two years before random breath testing was introduced in NSW, 380 people died in alcohol-related crashes, about 40 per cent of all road deaths. In 2019, 57 of the 352 fatalities were related to alcohol. On average, about 350 people are seriously injured each year in crashes where alcohol was involved.
Fatalities in NSW where alcohol was a factor
- 2019: 57 deaths (16% of all fatalities)
- 2018: 64 deaths (18%)
- 2017: 55 deaths (14%)
- 2016: 59 deaths (15.5%)
- 2015: 45 deaths (13%)
- 2014: 50 deaths (16%)
Source: Transport for NSW
Australia’s combination of low blood-alcohol limits and random breath testing – with 5.9 million roadside tests in 2019 – was seen as the best in the world, he said.
The National Road Safety Strategy 2011 to 2020, which was signed by Mr Albanese, now the Labor leader, and then NSW roads minister Duncan Gay, listed the advantages of reducing the blood alcohol limit as being particularly beneficial for adults under 30.
Asked whether he still supported the 2011 report of which he was signatory to, Mr Albanese’s office referred the questions to Labor’s current transport spokeswoman, MP Catherine King.
Ms King did not comment directly on reducing the alcohol limit, but described Saturday’s crash as an “avoidable tragedy”.
She called on the federal government to work with states, police and road safety experts to take national action on the rising road toll.
“As we enter the final year of the National Road Safety Strategy, the road toll is back at levels higher than five years ago,” she said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Saturday’s deaths prompted an immediate response in the local community. Parramatta councillors called for an urgent meeting with local government officials to consider installing steel barriers along Bettington Road where the incident occurred.
Several thousand people signed an online petition calling for speed humps to be installed on the road “so this tragedy doesn’t occur again”.
Labor’s road safety spokesman John Graham said Saturday’s deadly crash formed an “unimaginably heartbreaking” piece of the state’s growing road toll.
Mr Graham was reluctant to pressure the government for immediate legislative changes in response to one incident.
“You can understand the instinct [to react], it’s heartbreaking, we do have an overall problem, but you don’t want to pull the wrong lever here,” he said.
Mr Graham said any new law to lower the drinking limit to 0.02 must be “guided by evidence”.
NSW extended the zero blood-alcohol limit to P-platers in 2004. It also introduced mandatory interlocks for high-range drink drivers in 2015, and expanded the use of interlocks, requiring zero limit, to mid-range drink drivers in December 2018.
Julie Power is a senior journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald.
Tom Rabe is Transport Reporter with The Sydney Morning Herald.