So, where are all the dollars going that are stripped off motorists in registration fees, fines, GST dividends and fuel excise?
The just-released 2013 Australian Road Assessment Program (AusRAP) report paints a very poor picture of Australia’s national highways.
Alarmingly, of the 21,922km of highway examined (those with a speed limit of 90km/h or higher), 39 percent rated 2-Stars or less out of a possible five for safety.
Victoria came through 'least scathed' by the report as the only state with any 5-Star rated roads (albeit just two percent of its roads). In that state, least worst of a bad lot, only 13 percent of roads examined earned 4-Stars, and 62 percent just 3-Stars.
The Australian Capital Territory and Western Australia rounded out the top three, with 21 percent of the ACT's national highways and 16 percent of WA’s rated as 4-Star.
The national highways of the Northern Territory and Tasmania are among the country's worst, with 29 percent of NT roads and 20 percent of Tasmanian roads gaining just a 1-Star rating.
Currently, 53 percent of national highways Australia-wide are rated as 3-Star, eight percent as 4-Star and zero percent as 5-Star, with Victoria’s few 5-Star roads not enough to influence the national figure.
So where are the dollars going?
Car manufacturers have responded to demands for improved safety with life-saving technologies in even the most inexpensive cars.
And motorists suffer punitive snail's-pace speed restrictions with microsopic "no excuses" tolerances. But our road builders, those state monoliths who operate beyond the reach of voters, are not subject to the same lofty standards of safety adherence in either road building or road maintenance.
The report begins: "Each year road crashes in Australia result in tragic levels of death and serious injury. It is essential that Australia commits to an accelerated program of upgrading our national highways."
It also contends that "sub-standard sections of highway" are "a significant contributing factor (to the national road toll)".
Yes, it's time.
The AusRAP program is run by the Australian Automobile Association (AAA), which compiled the report with assistance from State motoring bodies and government departments.
When awarding star ratings, the presence of road safety features such as divided roads, rumble strips, sealed edges and protected turn lanes were all considered.
The AAA claims a combined investment in road infrastructure of around $4.7 billion could see 85 percent of national highways rated as 3-Star or better, with six percent rated as 5-Star.
The association also claims that the financial benefits from reduced road trauma would more than account for the outlay, with NSW’s $1.9 billion share of the $4.7 billion total expected to save $7.1 billion in costs associated with road trauma.
Speaking on behalf of the NRMA in NSW, President Wendy Machin said these figures showed that many deaths and serious injuries could be avoided for a reasonable investment.
"Investing in these cost-effective measures to significantly improve the safety of NSW and ACT highways should be a no-brainer for governments," Ms Machin said.
Tasmania’s relatively affordable $74 million share would be enough to eliminate all 1-star rated national highways in the state.
“Tasmania’s national highway network has a long way to go just to reach the average safety ratings of interstate highways. Yet investment of a relatively modest $74 million can improve safety and provide a significant dividend in casualties saved,” RACT’s Vince Taskunas said.
Of all road safety improvements, the AAA claims that crash barriers provide the biggest benefit, with a $2.3 billion investment potentially preventing 19,300 deaths and serious injuries.
Shoulder rumble strips could prevent 4090 deaths and serious injuries and skid resistance (paved roads) could prevent a further 2500.
The combined cost of both of these safety features would be $973 million but with a potential economic benefit of $2.95 billion.
The AAA and all of Australia’s premier motoring bodies are urging motorists to sign the “Demand Better Roads” petition before this year’s federal election.
- Trevor Collett (with Tim O'Brien; Managing Editor, The Motor Report)