Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

By Ian Lowe

While road funding regulations remain messy, the Abbott government has supported a second Sydney airport over a high speed rail line linking the east coast cities.

The mysterious disappearance of flight MH370 naturally focused attention on the safety of flying. Every day, people board flights expecting to arrive safely at their destination, so it is a shock when things go badly wrong. The data show that flying is actually very safe – and getting safer as systems are improved every time an accident report identifies problems.

In 2013, the global commercial aviation industry operated 36 million flights, carrying more than 3000 million passengers. There were 81 accidents recorded, with a total loss of 210 passengers. That was roughly half the figure for 2012, when more than 400 died.

But the statistics are obviously affected dramatically by one accident involving a large aircraft. The loss of MH370 alone killed more passengers than the whole of the industry’s operations in 2013. Had the crew of the seriously damaged flight QF32 from Singapore not managed to land their aircraft safely, the casualty numbers would have swamped all recent accidents.

Still, there is no doubt that flying is very much safer than driving. The regular loss of life on the roads is so predictable that we call it “the road toll” – as if it is the inevitable price of using the system. Nearly 1200 died on Australian roads last year – about 50 deaths per million people. In contrast the figure for flying works out at 0.07 per million passengers.

The aviation industry used this figure recently to say it is 750 times safer to fly than to drive, but that is unfairly comparing the risk of one flight with a year of motoring. Australian civil aviation is still safer than the global average performance of the industry, despite systematic lowering of standards by Qantas management.

And the roads are also getting safer. The 1200 deaths last year for the whole of Australia compares with more than 600 for Queensland alone in 1980 – the year I returned to Australia.

One reason roads are getting safer is the massive expenditure on upgrading highways. Roads are still much more dangerous than railways, so it was disappointing to see the Abbott government disband the High Speed Rail taskforce that was evaluating the perennial issue of a possible new rail link connecting the eastern cities of Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and perhaps Brisbane.

Instead of this safer alternative, the government has charged ahead with a decision to support a second Sydney airport at Badgerys Creek and commit massive amounts for connecting roads. That looks like 20th century thinking.

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The broader issue of road funding has been put back on the political agenda by a new discussion paper produced by Roads Australia and a group called the Transport Reform Network. The paper calls for a harmonisation of regulations and pricing between states and territories, a move that should command widespread support. It also proposes a study of the funding of roads, with a possible trial of some sort of road pricing scheme.

The current system is a messy hybrid of fixed charges for vehicle registration and fuel taxes that are effectively charges related to the amount of travel undertaken. The report correctly says that the system is “neither fair nor transparent”. Fuel prices are higher in rural areas, while it probably costs more to support urban motorists, especially those who drive into congested areas at peak hours.

The Australian Automobile Association’s chief executive, Andrew McKellar, described reform of the funding system as “a national priority”. While the association supports a trial of road pricing or user-charging, McKellar also said: “Motorists will not accept paying more than they currently do”. This seems an ambit claim, as any system of fairer charging must mean that some users will pay more while others who make fewer demands on the road network pay less.

The political challenge will be deciding who should conduct any inquiry. The discussion paper suggests that the Productivity Commission should be responsible, but that body has a notoriously blinkered focus on one school of economic thinking.

Still, any serious inquiry about road pricing would have to raise the vexed issue of road freight. Since the Wran government in NSW was forced in 1977 to back down from an attempt to make trucks pay their way, the huge subsidies have continued.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.