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A Government Set to Make a Killing on Our Roads

Moves are afoot to ban the use of mobile phones on Australia's roads. It'll hit business productivity hard and it's doubtful it'll have much impact on accident rates. It will, of course, be a big revenue winner for state governments. NSW is already forecasting a cash bonanza.
Data gathered in 2002 (1) showed that the average Sydneysider spent four hours 43 minutes each week commuting to work. Melbourne came a close second at four hours 22 minutes. It's no doubt longer today. At the time 78 percent of us travelled to work by car. That figure is likely to creep up if we continue to build new suburbs poorly served by public transport.

Indeed, Barry O'Farrell has declared he will zone more land for housing on Sydney's urban fringe after he claims his inevitable victory in the NSW elections next month. So the distance we travel to work looks likely to increase, whilst the speed remains constant. That's the case in Sydney where, for the last 20 years, we have been averaging 30km/hr at the morning peak on the seven major routes into the city (2).

So in our big cities we have close to two hours a day spent in slow moving traffic. It's only natural that business types will use this time constructively by getting on the phone and clearing up some issues before getting the first cappuccino of the day and finally putting their feet behind the desk.

What's wrong with that? Plenty according to the Draft National Road Safety Strategy(3) from the Australian Transport Council. The latest draft report suggests that "there is evidence to support bans on all mobile phone use while driving". So even hands-free use in a traffic jam would be off limits.

The report points to evidence that talking on the phone can be a distraction whilst driving. Yet it doesn't seem to have translated to accident statistics. Deaths and injuries have been on the decline, despite the rise of the mobile phone and, it seems, irrespective of fines imposed.

In 1970 there were 29 deaths per 100,000 people on NSW roads. That's fallen to less than seven over recent years(4), despite more cars and increasing kilometres travelled. The mobile phone has arrived, added SMS, then email and social networking, and still the figures are in decline. Why? Because, according to RTA Crash Data(5) the major killers (averaged for 2007-9) continue to be excessive speed (39 percent), alcohol (21 percent) and fatigue (18 percent). Who knows, maybe in years to come those figures will be broken down into texting, Facebook and Googling, but for now it seems less of a concern than the old favourites.

Still, a total ban on mobile phones, whilst hitting business productivity hard, would be a winner for the government coffers. A study of NSW budget papers(6) shows that , surprisingly, revenue from fines has been been heading south over recent years. $238 million for 1998-9 works out at $67 per registered vehicle. In 2009 fines totalled $295 million --- $65 per vehicle. Take inflation into account and revenue from fines has slipped markedly.

Yet, over the same period, accident rates in NSW have fallen significantly. Fatality numbers in the high five hundreds in the late '90s have fallen to the low four hundreds in recent years. 2008 hit a low of 374. Casualties have also fallen, from 29,913 in 2001 down 22 percent to 23,246 in 2010 --- despite a 23 percent increase in registered vehicles over this period. And the government managed to do this without hitting us much harder with fines. In fact, there is a very weak relationship between fines imposed and casualty rates.

Clearly the deterrent is working. We're scared of the fines so we're driving more sensibly, and not getting slugged in the process. That surely puts paid to the argument that traffic fines are used for revenue raising.

Well, maybe, if it wasn't for the fact that the NSW government is planning to slug drivers much harder with fines from now on. In nine of the last eleven years they underestimated how much money they would make from traffic fines. That's what makes the forward estimates in the 2010 budget(7) particularly scary. They're now expecting fines to jump from $295 million in 2008/9 and $291 million (forecast) in 2009/10 to a staggering $428 million this year and $570 million next. With this doubling of revenue from traffic fines will we see a halving of accidents? Of course not. As we all obligingly keep to the speed limit and stay off the booze, would an outright ban on mobile phones make drivers easier to fine? Of course it will.

Data sources:
(1) Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey â€" see "Commuting in Australia --- Off To Work"
(2) RTA Annual Speed and Volume Traffic Data

(3) Draft National Road Safety Strategy 2011-2020
(4) NSW Fatality Rates -
(5) RTA monthly crash data -
(6) NSW budget papers -
(7) NSW Budget 2010-11 Budget Paper No 2 -

  • Read more By The Numbers articles by Phil Dobbie here.

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