Country businesses and road users are screaming out for upgrades on dangerous roads, which they say will help curb the toll as well as boost businesses.
The number of lives lost on Victorian roads peaked in 1970 at 1061 deaths. In the decades since there has been a significant downward trend, with 2018’s road toll of 214 the lowest on record.
But in 2019 the toll sky-rocketed by a quarter, to 263. The latest statistics also show the trend towards more fatalities occurring on country rather than city roads, which began in the early 1990s, has become even more entrenched.
This week, while announcing the leap in the 2019 road toll, Victoria Police assistant commissioner and Road Policing Commander Libby Murphy acknowledged that further explanation was needed as to why the number of rural fatalities kept increasingly so dramatically.
“It’s really important that we understand that [the people who have died on country roads] are country people,” she said.
“They are not people from the cities who are diving on country roads. They are country people who need to pay attention and be more aware.”
Road Safety Minister Jaala Pulford said the speeds and distances covered by country drivers were among the factors that put them more at risk.
“The reason for the [over representation of country road deaths] is substantially people leaving their lanes, so vehicles that run off the road off to the left and no longer on the road, or vehicles that cross the road and are then in a head-on collision.
“The risks are greater for people on country roads because the speeds they’re travelling at are typically greater and the distances that they travel at are typically longer.”
In earlier comments before the year’s end, Ms Pulford was at a loss to blame any one contributing for the increase in rural fatalities.
“I wish there was a single factor we could pinpoint as the cause of the increased number of lives lost on Victorian roads this year, instead there are a range of contributing factors including speed, distraction and fatigue,” she said.
She said evidence showed many fatal crashes on both regional and metropolitan roads were “the result of a simple mistake”.
But in the experience of many Western district drivers, the biggest single contributing factor to accidents is the pot-holed roads they drive on each day. They’re pushing for the government to fix their dilapidated road networks, not only to curb the road toll, but also to also keep afloat the many regional businesses that rely on road transport.
Michael Steel runs a bluestone business in Port Fairy in Victoria’s south-west.
He said the main transport route from there to Melbourne was so rough that the bluestone blockshe carted were often broken by the time he arrived in the city after the three-hour a trip up the Princes Highway.
“We have to load trucks lighter as we are not putting pallets of stone on the rear of the truck as we know they will bounce around too much because of the road situation,” Mr Steel said.
He has pleaded with the government to upgrade the roads and said wire rope barriers were not the answer to curbing the road toll. (On January 1 last year the state government announced that it would roll out a further 500km of the safety barriers across Victoria.)
“I see them as the last priority, not the first. Upgrade the roads first,” Mr Steel said. “We shouldn’t have to have a catching net because the roads are so bad.”
He said speeds had been reduced from 100km/h to 80 km/h on rough sections of the road between Warrnambool and Port Fairy.
“Instead of fixing the problem you get a massive build-up of frustrated drivers and slow traffic. It creates an aggressive driving culture instead of a relaxed one.”
He said country motorists had waited long enough and action was needed to fix dangerous sections of the highway.
“I say to the government of the day, please – we will say thank you. We’re not marching in the streets, we’re not being rude about it.”
The Princes Highway West Action Alliance was formed in 2018 by four south-west councils to lobby state and federal governments for upgrades to the area’s major link to Melbourne.
“The group was formed out of frustration regarding the lack of investment in a major productivity route while major works were being funded on the Western Highway and in the metro region,” Action Alliance spokesman Trev Greenberger said.
“The section of the highway from Colac to the South Australian border is in terrible condition and major investment is needed urgently.”
The region produces 2.05 billion litres of milk annually, which equates to 24 per cent of the nation’s milk product and 27 per cent of the nation’s dairy exports.
Mr Greenberger said that while most Victorians lived in the metropolitan area, it was areas such as the state’s south-west that provided the food, milk and products city people consumed daily.
“We need decent roads to get this product to market,” he said. “This is the message we all need to be telling government.”
Warrnambool City Council is also a part of the alliance and mayor Tony Herbert said he “doesn’t know how we will feed Melbourne if we don’t get better roads”.
Mr Greenberger said that while state government investment had increased recently, the asset management investment had “been so low for so long” it was going to take “a number of years of similar investment to catch up”.
He said sections of the Warrnambool-Caramut Road, Lismore-Skipton Road and Hopkins Highway were “in a terrible state with some areas reduced to 60km/h”.
The government has invested millions to install the controversial wire rope barriers.
Its $1.4 billion Towards Zero Action Plan includes barriers on 20 of the state’s highest risk roads, as well as new overtaking lanes, roundabouts and rumble strips.
High risk regional roads including the Bellarine Highway, Surf Coast Highway, Midland Highway and Fyansford-Gheringhap Road are also undergoing upgrades.
Regional Roads Victoria’s safer roads director Scott Lawrence said that while the circumstances of every crash were different, speed, drugs and alcohol, fatigue and distraction remained the main factors contributing to lives lost on our roads.
He said there had also been a worrying spike in fatalities this year where seatbelts were not worn. “A simple mistake when travelling at 90km/h or 100km/h can have a catastrophic outcome, compared to when travelling at a lower speed,” he said.
Opposition spokeswoman for rural roads Roma Britnell, the state Liberal MP for South-West Coast, said country people were sick of seeing money spent on road repairs “that seem to fail just a few weeks later”.
Ms Britnell has criticised the state Labor government for installing wire-rope barriers along the region rather than repairing roads that are in a poor condition.
“They are sick of seeing wire-rope barriers installed beside roads full of potholes,” she said.
“The number one thing people say to me is fix the roads and fix them properly. There is no point putting up wire rope barriers or installing rumble strips if the road is falling apart and is unsafe.”
She said she had heard from country Victorians who said they were fearful when driving on rural roads.
“I have had people tell me about damage the poor road surface has done to their cars and truck drivers tell me if the road were considered their workplace, WorkSafe would shut them down because the conditions are so dangerous,” she said.
Rachael is a reporter at The Age. Contact me at email@example.com
Sumeyya is state political reporter for The Age.