Sunday, 17 November 2013
By 1972 Australia had introduced the compulsory wearing of seat belts in both front and back seats and the death toll halved within 12 months. The French authorities saw these results and introduced similar legislation in 1973, also with very satisfactory effects. In both countries government will and the 'silent majority' coincided in their views and seat belts became part of life -- literally.
The next big issue was drink driving. Both countries introduced drink driving legislation, Australia in 1976 and France in 1978, setting low limits of blood alcohol for drivers and enabling the police to test drivers. Nothing much happened -- in practice the law wasn't enforced in either country, mainly because there was not really the mobile technology to do so.
The change came in Australia in 1982, when the police in New South Wales started a massive random breath testing campaign with new equipment. There was also a huge driver education campaign which flooded the media with extremely blunt messages ('If you drink then drive, you're a bloody idiot') with images to match. Once again the effect was immediate, because now there was a significant chance you would be caught.
It took France considerably longer to get a government willing to tackle their drink driving culture, but in 2003 the issue of drink driving was linked with health politically. The government of the day was very strongly committed to enforcing and strengthening existing drink driving legislation, and in 2004 a délégué à la sécurité routière ('road safety tzar') was appointed, who developed a very high personal profile and a successful driver education media campaign. The police began random breath testing and by 2006 France was one of only four EU countries meeting targets for percentage of population tested for alcohol while driving. Once again, the silent majority turned out to be in favour, and death tolls dropped.
According to one report by a French road safety expert that I read, it was as if France turned into a different country in which to drive overnight. It apparently caught certain foreign holidaymakers by surprise, as they would come over the Channel or cross the border expecting to be able to break all the rules with impunity, and fines dealt to foreign drivers went up considerably for a few years after 2003. Of course there are still people who drive after drinking, but all French people know the slogan 'Boire ou conduire, il faut choisir' ('drink or drive, you have to choose').
Coupled with the improvement in vehicles and roads, the road toll is now down to 6.1 per 100K in France and 6 per 100K in Australia. This is still twice the level of deaths in the UK, but half that of the US. In both France and Australia the seat belt campaign is won, the drink driving campaign has been a great success but remains ongoing, speeding rears its ugly head from time to time and now the use of mobile phones while driving. Driver education combined with the political will to fund education and enforcement is the key. You cannot just announce that road safety is a good thing and hope that people will behave appropriately. The investment by government in education and enforcement is repaid many times by savings in medical care, accident investigation and insurance payouts.