Recent reports indicate that older vehicles are over-represented in fatal vehicle crashes, and that the average age of a vehicle involved in a fatal crash is increasing. Over the past three years, the average age of light vehicles (passenger vehicles and SUVs) in Australia has remained constant – at 9.8 years. In 2015, the average age of a vehicle involved in a fatal crash was 12.5 years; this rose to 12.9 years in 2016, and increased to 13.1 years in 2017.
The National Road Safety Strategy (NRSS) Inquiry Report noted that the capacity of vehicles to protect occupants in a crash has increased considerably over recent years. It has been a factor in reducing serious trauma on Australia's roads. It was estimated that 36 per cent of the 1 260 reduction in deaths per year, for the period 2000-2017, can be attributed to improved vehicle safety. Newer, safer vehicles include the latest protective structures for occupants and other road users, and are fitted with effective collision avoidance technologies.
The NRSS Inquiry Report noted, however, that while safer vehicles can deliver incremental benefits over the long term, it takes around 20 years to achieve fleet turnover.
The NRSS Inquiry Report also pointed to the fact that most Australian workplaces have a "significant and often under-resourced road safety risk to manage". The report cited figures which indicated that of the 3 414 workers who died in workplace accidents between 2003 and 2016, 39 per cent of the incidents were as a result of a vehicle collision. It was noted that injury levels from road crashes also make up a significant proportion of workplace injury.
It was argued that Government has both a legal and moral obligation to ensure road safety is mainstreamed in all departments, and associated supply contracts and partnerships. It is vital therefore that more careful attention is paid to things such as vehicle, mode and route choices, road user behaviour training, technology and operating standards, incident response systems and other Safe System practices. Having established that there are a number of corporate organisations leading the way in terms of workplace safety, the Report argued that there are things Government can learn from industry in this key area of road safety.
The Australian vehicle fleet
The Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries (FCAI) told the committee that vehicle manufacturers "acknowledge that they cannot readily influence all parameters involved in road safety and that their direct responsibility is with vehicle design and safety performance". It was noted, however, that safety improvements have been achieved due to changes in design (including vehicle structure and enhanced energy absorption capabilities) and the incorporation of specific occupant protection systems (including safety restraint systems and airbags).
It was noted that, in addition to performing better in relation to crashes, modern vehicles are also better equipped to avoid a crash altogether. Advances in crash avoidance technology mean that vehicles are increasingly able to provide driver warnings, maintain control, effectively brake, remain in lane, and provide effective lighting of roadways to help reduce the risk and severity of a crash.
Vehicle Standards Regulation
Despite the fact that vehicle safety is a central issue when it comes to road safety (and all vehicles supplied to the market are required to comply with mandatory safety, environmental and security standards) it was noted that the items covered tend to lag behind the development of more enhanced safety systems.
Noting that the Commonwealth has the lead responsibility for implementing legislative and regulatory changes to vehicle standards in Australia, the NSW Government expressed concern that the "timeframes for mandating safety features for vehicles entering Australia's market do not align with the world's best performing countries". It was argued that currently "the process in Australia to mandate critical vehicle safety features is so prolonged that technologies sometimes either become standard in most vehicles or are obsolete by the time regulatory changes are made to mandate them".
In most parts of the world, technical safety standards are based on the regulations of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), which are increasingly based on European Union (EU) Standards. The NSW Government noted that Australia is a signatory to both the 1958 and the 1998 UNECE Agreement and submitted that adoption of UNECE Standards "provides access to international standards and removes the need for local development of standards".
The committee was advised that:
The European Union has led to the European parliament announcing plans to implement a new regulatory package addressing 16 types of vehicle safety technologies to become mandatory from 2022, which could take effect through a series of UN regulations. The regulatory package will help transform Europe's vehicle fleet into one of the safest in the world. The Australian government is in a position to leverage the expensive work already completed in Europe to align the new Australian regulations, commencing within the same time frame as the European regulatory package. This is within the remit of the federal government and would provide substantial trauma savings, not just in New South Wales but in all jurisdictions.
The NSW Government also observed that currently, in Australia, the safety benefits of non-mandatory critical vehicle safety features are primarily observed in light passenger vehicles such as cars. However, the adoption of these safety features is less commonly observed in non-passenger vehicles, such as light commercial vehicles. It was argued that:
The problem is compounded as even when a feature becomes mandatory, light commercial vehicles are usually allowed a greater lead-in time than passenger vehicles. For example, evaluations consistently estimate a 40 per cent reduction in rear-end crash risk in cars fitted with autonomous emergency braking (AEB); yet less than one per cent of NSW-registered light commercial vehicles have AEB, compared to over 30 per cent of NSW-registered passenger vehicles. Despite the proven benefits of AEB, there is no mandatory requirement to fit this life-saving feature in new model passenger and light commercial vehicles.
In was noted that in August 2019, it was agreed – and announced by the Transport and Infrastructure Council (TIC) – that the Commonwealth would streamline processes to improve the uptake of new safety technology in Australia for the new vehicle fleet. While the NSW Government welcomed this announcement, it urged for "more tangible and swift action to be taken at the national level". It was argued that by adopting the same time frame as the EU (for the Australian regulatory impact statement process) the incorporation of those safety features could be brought forward in NSW.
A specific focus of the Victorian Government's submission was the need for shorter timelines for the adoption of international regulations into the Australian Design Rules (ADRs). It was argued that efforts should be made to prioritise the suite of vehicle technologies (soon to be adopted in Europe) that would have the greatest benefit in reducing road trauma in Australia.
The Victorian Government noted that it is encouraged by the work being undertaken by the Commonwealth to accelerate the mandatory introduction of AEB into passenger and light commercial vehicles. However, it argued that "more needs to be done to expedite new safety features that will become compulsory in new cars, trucks, vans and buses in Europe from 2022.
It was suggested that states and territories could assist the Commonwealth to fast-track ADR implementation by conducting research and studies in specific areas and technologies. The Victorian Government's contribution to research (which supported the mandating of Ani-lock Braking Systems for motorcycles) was cited as an example of working to expedite the process.
The Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications (Department of Infrastructure) suggested that there may be some misconceptions "out there as to what the EU time frame and the EU general safety regulation is". The committee was advised that the EU has put forward an aspirational program of works – which is their general safety regulation – in the same way as a country like Japan or Australia regularly do. Further, it was explained that:
…a lot of this is actually predicated on what happens in the UN. It's actually our UN regulatory process, where we sit on Working Party 29, which gives effect to the broader policies so that you get a more global approach to those standards. We look at things through very much an Australian lens. We wouldn't necessarily adopt an EU regulation that talks about how you'd have safety for snow. We would try to work out what the sorts of cars are that come into the Australian market.
The Department of Infrastructure argued that Australia is not necessarily behind, and advised that regulations are examined in terms of what is relevant within the Australian context. It was noted, for example that Australia leads the world in things such as pole-side impact and child restraints. At the same time, however, it was acknowledged that:
…there are some things where we're perhaps a little bit further behind, such as the AEB. But we're going to have our RIS out on the AEB very shortly. Some ADR information went out to industry yesterday, for example. From our perspective, we will very much have a program of works that we will set out in the National Road Safety Strategy, which will align with the time frame of the UN. Much of that will be complementary to the EU or ahead of the EU, but it will also look at what's happening in those other markets as well.
FCAI pointed to the design of vehicles as one of the important factors in road safety, and noted that modern vehicles are much safer than the ones they have replaced over time. At the same time, however, FCAI warned against focusing solely on the specifications of new vehicles, which it argued totally disregards the need to accelerate the renewal of Australia's vehicle fleet. It was noted that the average age of Australia's vehicle fleet has been steadily increasing, and is currently estimated at 10.2 years, which is much older than best practice being achieved in some areas of Europe and Asia.
Further, FCAI noted that as at December 2019, there had been 20 consecutive months of decline in new vehicle sales. It was argued, therefore that if new, advanced vehicle technologies are to have a more immediate and significant effect on Australia's road toll, governments at all levels will have to consider what policy measures may be required to:
remove barriers to new vehicle purchases; and
encourage existing owners to choose newer, safer vehicles.
FCAI also advised that at the average age of 10.2 years, based on mandated fitment, new vehicle technology advances will only penetrate the market at a rate of five per cent per year or reach just under 50 per cent after ten years and therefore have negligible immediate effect.
In evidence, the Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP) supported FCAI's point, and acknowledged the fact that while a lot of new vehicles have new safety technologies, "it takes some time to penetrate into the fleet and have enough vehicles in the fleet with the technologies".
Noting that while the average age of the vehicle fleet is 10.2 years, the average life of a vehicle is approximately 20 years, ANCAP was asked about systems that may be adaptable post-production, and which could be fitted to cover the 10 or 15 year gap. The committee was advised that:
…it's very difficult to retrofit the types of technologies that we're talking about, and starting from our base, in occupant protection and passive safety, it's definitely not possible. When we start to look at active safety, probably the best chances are in things like the connected vehicle space, where it may be possible to retrofit some road information type systems to the vehicle and so on. I think that retrofitting something like AEB or pedestrian detection, even lane departure warning – the latter may be possible, but the effectiveness would be a lot lower than a system that's built in. I think our real pressure there is to try, where possible, to have the newest possible vehicles and to also try and get road users that are high risk in the safest vehicles.
Workplace fleet vehicles
A recently published Austroads safety guide targets firms, organisations and individuals who use vehicles for work purposes. The guide points to vehicle use in road traffic as "the most significant contributor to work-related traumatic injury", and argues that the impact of harm caused (by road traffic injury within workplaces and across the community) is significant. It also points to the impact road trauma can have on businesses, in terms of both productivity and business continuity, noting that even the temporary absence of an employee can have a major impact on the viability of small and growing businesses.
The Australian Road Safety Foundation (ARSF) referred to SafeWork Australia figures which indicate that over the past decade, a significant number of those killed at work were as a result of motor vehicle incidents. The ARSF argued that despite driving a vehicle potentially being "one of the most dangerous activities within a workplace", the risk management practices across many organisations "do not extend the same level of diligence as they would for other risky workplace activities".
Organisations have a responsibility to provide and manage safe workplaces, particularly when workers are required to use vehicles as part of their employment. These may include the following situations:
vehicles are owned, leased or hired by the organisation as work vehicles;
vehicles are owned, leased or hired by the organisation for private use but are used incidentally in the course of work (for example, vehicles included in salary packaging arrangements);
vehicles operated by other organisations which their workers use, either as drivers or passengers;
vehicles owned or leased by workers that are used in the course of their work, either regularly or from time to time (often referred to as 'grey fleet' vehicles); and
public transport vehicles, including trains, buses, taxis and ride share vehicles.
While many organisations do have policies and procedures to manage the acquisition, operation and use of their own vehicles, many pay much less attention to the other vehicles that may be used, in particular, the grey fleet. Workplace health and safety legislation does not make a distinction between those vehicles an organisation directly owns (or leases) and other vehicles. Outsourcing vehicle operations (to contractors or to employees themselves) does not remove the obligation for an organisation to provide a safe workplace. Questions around the application of workplace health and safety duties are largely determined on the facts and circumstances of each case, rather than contractual terms.
Road safety and workplace health and safety are both complex areas, and it has been acknowledged that historically, freight and passenger travel time efficiency has been the central goal of Australia's road transport system. It has also been observed that organisations across different industry sectors (and operating different types of fleets) will identify different risks that need to be managed. They will also adopt and implement different processes, depending on the size and maturity of their workplace health and safety systems.
The complex issues around vehicle fleet management and work-related road trauma were, therefore, raised by a number of submitters as major challenges to those working toward improved road safety. Stakeholders stressed the fact that work-related road trauma is the highest single contributor to work-related deaths and injuries, and pointed to statistics which they consider unacceptable.
It was estimated that between 50 and 60 per cent of all new vehicles are sold to businesses or corporate fleets, approximately two out of three vehicles on the road are involved in a work-related trip, and on average, company drivers travel more than twice the annual distance of private car drivers and have around 50 per cent more incidents. It was also submitted that work-related road crashes currently account for approximately half of all occupational fatalities and 15 per cent of national road deaths – with people killed or seriously injured while travelling to and from work.
FCAI argued that governments should consider a range of policies which encourage businesses to provide their employees with the safest possible, fit for purpose vehicles. FCAI submitted that increasing businesses' awareness of their occupational health and safety obligations, providing incentives to encourage vehicle changeover (to safer more modern vehicles) and encouraging the adoption of safer vehicle technologies would increase the safety of fleet vehicles. It was also argued that if business and government fleets are more regularly updated, it would result in more modern vehicles entering the used vehicle market – at pricing levels that some used vehicle consumers may be able to afford – and lead to a reduction in the average vehicle age.
As the "single largest light fleet operator in NSW" the NSW Government either owns or leases over 20 000 light vehicles. As part of its Road Safety Plan 2021 (RSP 2021) the NSW Government updated its fleet procurement policy to guarantee all vehicles purchased are fitted with the latest safety technologies, including AEB and other driver assist technologies. It was argued that ensuring vehicles entering the NSW Government fleet have the highest level of safety technology, helps control the risks associated with road crashes and complements road safety strategies. With approximately 6 500 fleet vehicles replaced annually, the NSW Government noted that it supplies a significant number of vehicles to the used car market every year, and pointed to the benefits of having increased numbers of used vehicles (fitted with safety technologies) on our roads.
The NSW Government submission advised that under its Motor Vehicle Pre-Qualification Scheme, only vehicles with a five-star ANCAP safety rating can be procured. It was noted, however, that driver assist technologies are constantly evolving, meaning that recent technologies are often only available in the most recent vehicle models. The NSW Government advised that managing its vehicle fleet in the face of technological advancement means:
…that there can be a gap between five-star rated vehicles and the safest ones now available, so the Scheme needs to be constantly reviewed. Transport for NSW consulted extensively with the then NSW Department of Finance, Service and Innovation (DFSI) and other relevant agencies to identify the most effective approach for updating the NSW Government fleet procurement policy for a staged implementation for different vehicle categories. This commenced in late 2018, and vehicles eligible for the scheme must have autonomous emergency braking, a lane keep assist system and a reversing safety system, subject to available in the vehicle class and suitability for purpose.
The NSW Government observed that research – and the equivalent regulatory impact statements undertaken by the EU – indicate that implementation of these new technologies would provide a benefit to the economy. The committee was told that, currently, NSW has "reasonably low levels of full take-up of those particular systems within our fleet, mainly because it takes a long time for turnover in the fleet".
In addition, the committee was informed that:
The evidence that we have suggests that, the earlier we can introduce those life-saving technologies within our fleet, the time frames for the saving of lives in crashes on our roads is significantly brought forward. We know that a significant proportion of the benefits that we've had in the measures that have been introduced over the last decade has been achieved through the vehicle safety features and the improvement of the safety features of vehicles over the last decade.
The Queensland Department of Transport and Main Roads (TMR) described the workplace as key area in which people can be targeted with road safety messages aimed at changing behaviour. It was noted that there has been an increasing recognition that vehicles are part of the workplace, and mechanisms exist – through workplace health and safety legislation – to integrate road safety into the core issues taken seriously by employers.
TMR pointed to the guidelines developed by Austroads, noting that they "provide practical risk management guidance for individuals and organisations who use vehicles on public roads for work". TMR argued that this success could be replicated in other transport sectors, including finding new ways to embed road safety in fleet management policies.
TMR also acknowledged that some sections of the heavy vehicle industry have shown leadership through a range of measures designed to combat driver fatigue and distraction, including work done in collaboration with the National Road Safety Partnership Program (NRSPP).
The Australian Trucking Association (ATA) argued that while great progress has been made in reducing the number and rate of truck crashes, the number is still unacceptable. The ATA noted that it supports a vision zero target, and expressed the view that every "road user should be able to get home safely every day". To achieve this aim, it was argued that governments need to continue using the Safe System approach to work towards safer roads, safer vehicles, improved safety systems and better information to link it all together.
The committee was advised that the ATA's focus, when it comes to accelerating the uptake of proven safety technologies, is on mandating emergency braking for new trucks. The ATA argued that if this is implemented – with the extension of mandatory electronic stability control to new rigid trucks – "the technology would save 102 lives and prevent more than 2 500 serious injuries".
In evidence, the ATA explained that its position is that:
AEB's should be mandated for new model rigid trucks from November 2020 and from 1 January 2022 for all new vehicles. In terms of prime movers, we've proposed that the prime move start date be one year off those, because, although the technology is well proven, there are implementation issues involving our multi-combination vehicles – long combinations that they don't have in Europe – and also our dirt road operations in Australia, particularly the combination of the two of them. We believe that it needs to be introduced for rigid trucks urgently, in conjunction with mandatory electronic stability control, and that should come in for new vehicle models from 1 November 2020. While we support mandating the technology for prime movers, we do think there needs to be a bit more time for education and to prove the technology before it is mandated, which is why we've proposed a one-year offset.
In addition, the ATA told the committee that it sees "the road as a truck driver's workplace", and argued that, like any other worker, they deserve appropriate facilities. Stressing the need for the Commonwealth to prioritise safety in its approach to road spending, the ATA also argued for more consistent standards for building rest areas, including basic amenities such as toilets, water and shade.
Electric and autonomous vehicles
Given the increased interest in the purchase of electric vehicles, ANCAP was asked whether it undertakes any additional safety testing of these vehicles, particularly when they are being driven in autonomous mode.
ANCAP advised that electrical safety is included as part of its assessment. It was noted that if the electrical variant is not what was originally tested, then additional testing is undertaken to ensure that, for example, "in one of the fairly damaging type tests, such as a pole impact test, which could easily damage the battery integrity, that test is undertaken with the battery vehicles".
The committee was advised that in an actual crash test scenario, lab technicians will check the voltage on the car, and that the battery has been isolated. Technicians also monitor the battery voltage to make sure that the battery safety systems work, and there are the protocols around testing the ability to unlock doors.
ANCAP told the committee, that other than in some very restricted trial situations, Australia does not have vehicles that are able to be driven autonomously – without the supervision of the driver. But, for those vehicles driving under [supposed] driving intervention:
The cases overseas and the rules from overseas are a little different to here. I think the case where drivers are not doing their job is a slightly different situation and not something that is covered in our protocols. At this point, we're looking at the operation of those systems for normal driving.
The types of automated features we're testing are the standard features that you should be able to purchase in any vehicle, like advanced lane support systems, and we're expanding into new automated systems, such as emergency lane keeping. As these systems are developed, test protocols are developed at the same time, and we test them under what would be the expected operating circumstances of the vehicle.
Insurance Australia Group (IAG) acknowledged that the generally accepted discourse on automated and connected vehicles is that they will bring greatly improved safety to our roads. It was argued that approximately 90-94 per cent of accidents are estimated to be caused by human error, and "logic follows that removing human error will result in a dramatically reduced number of accidents". IAG therefore submitted that this type of technology should be welcomed and promoted, and Australia should capitalise on the "safety benefits as well as social and economic benefits that can be gained as early adopters of this technology".
At the same time, IAG cautioned against relying on technology as an "all-compassing solution", arguing that large-scale improvements in safety are likely only to be realised when the entire fleet of vehicles is fully automated and connected. IAG also argued that for a variety of social and economic reasons, the switch to automated vehicles is not something that is going to happen overnight, "rather, it appears likely there will be a long transition period where a mixed fleet of automated, semi-automated and connected vehicles are all driving together on the roads".
IAG submitted that before autonomous and connected vehicle technology is made available to the Australian market, it will be necessary to test and trial it under a variety of conditions. It was argued that the information obtained from these trials should be shared, and work done collaboratively across a number of industries, to guarantee the technology improves safety and does not add further (or different) compromises. IAG expressed support for the work that the National Transport Commission (NTC) is currently undertaking, which will ensure end to end regulation and the safe commercial deployment of automated vehicles at all levels.
The safety benefits of newer cars are undisputed. Recent technological advances have the potential to impart a step change in the safety of road transport. However these benefits are going to take time to realise.
The Australian fleet is relatively old, and at the present trajectory it will take close to 15 years to see the majority of vehicles in possession of the types of safety features which are becoming standard in newer vehicles. These features will save lives and reduce road trauma. The committee is therefore of the view that any efforts which can expedite their uptake would be very welcome.
While the committee accepts that there are limitations on what government can do to impact the purchasing behaviour of private road users, there are key steps which governments of all levels can do to reduce the age, and therefore improve the safety of the substantial number of vehicles that they operate. The committee is also strongly of the view that employers, whether they be private or public sector have an obligation to provide the safest cars possible for their employees. This applies across all sectors, including heavy vehicles.
The committee recommends that the Australian Government, state and territory, and local governments review their procurement practices to ensure that the safety of vehicles is a key criterion in purchasing decisions.
The committee has heard significant evidence in relation to the steps the Australian government can take to ensure that all vehicles on Australia's roads meet the highest safety standards possible. There was commentary throughout the inquiry referring to the vehicle safety standards globally, and whether Australia was meeting best practice in terms of both implementation and timeframes.
The European Union for example has set ambitious targets for the mandatory inclusion of a suite of safety standards in vehicles by 2022. While the committee accepts that not all of these features are appropriate or necessary in an Australian context, various submitters were of the view that there was the need for shorter timelines for the adoption of international regulations into the Australian Design Rules (ADRs), particularly those which will have the greatest impact in reducing road trauma in Australia.
The committee acknowledges the information provided by ANCAP regarding the level of safety features included in the base models of new vehicles. The committee notes that in terms of safety features, if there is a variant that has a lower specification, that is the one on which ANCAP bases its rating.
ANCAP told the committee that, since 2018, it is seeing safety features fitted across the board. It was noted that while in some cases there may be some gradation where, for example, the base model of a car has AEB (and it is a camera based system) the higher level might, for example, add a radar fusion system. It was explained that:
They are more expensive and there is a need to recoup the cost, but the basic system, and the system that delivers many of the safety benefits is available on the bottom grades. It will take some time – we made that change in 2018 – for that to percolate through all the models that have been assessed.
ANCAP also noted that they regularly assess the fitment of these features where they are optional, and have observed that critical safety features such as AEB and lane-keep assist are becoming almost standard across the board. The committee was told that ANCAP is satisfied with the level of fitment:
We rate 95 per cent of vehicles, and, of the five percent we don't rate, most are high-end, premium vehicles and have these features fitted as well. The level of fitment is excellent, but it does take time to percolate through the system.
The committee recommends the Australian Government review current timeframes for the mandatory introduction of safety features likely to have the greatest impact on reducing road trauma in Australia.
Autonomous vehicles, and to a lesser extent, electric vehicles, have the potential to transform road transport in the coming years. While fully autonomous vehicles may be some time away, the autonomous safety features in many new cars are welcomed by the committee. The committee concurs with submitters who argued that Australia should capitalise on the safety benefits as well as social and economic benefits that can be gained as early adopters of this technology.