Surge in country road deaths a major worry

A roadside memorial on a country road. Photo: Ken Irwin.

A roadside memorial on a country road. Photo: Ken Irwin.

A surge in single-vehicle accidents on Victoria's country roads has prompted fresh calls for motorists to travel at a safe speed - even if it is below the speed limit.

Transport Accident Commission figures show 60 lives have been lost on rural roads up to May 11, the highest for the year to date in six years and a 25 per cent rise on the same period last year.

While deaths on rural roads have risen this year, fatalities on Melbourne roads have fallen significantly, from 57 to 33 for the year to May 11.

Police say most of the country road deaths were caused by single cars running off the road.

Doug Fryer, Victoria Police assistant commissioner for road policing command, said he was concerned rural motorists felt obliged to drive to the speed limit, even if it wasn't safe.

"I've got a concern that we have many people who travel in the country, that see a 100[km/h] sign and think that they have to travel at 100," he said.

"But that's not the case. It is the maximum, not the recommended."

Assistant Commissioner Doug Fryer is concerned about the rise in country road deaths. Photo: Simon Schluter

Assistant Commissioner Doug Fryer is concerned about the rise in country road deaths. Photo: Simon Schluter

Rural deaths have accounted for almost two out of every three road deaths in Victoria so far this year, TAC figures reveal.

The rise is a worrying development when considered against long-term statistics.

Over the period from 1987 to 2017, from January 1 to May 11, rural road deaths accounted for a much lower proportion of the state's road toll at 51 per cent.

Mr Fryer said the jump in lives lost on country roads was "really concerning".

"Many, many of these crashes are single car, run-off-road, in country areas," he said.

"So far this year, out of all of our crashes that have taken lives, there have only been two double fatalities. So almost all of them that we're talking about, are single cars that are running off the road," he said.

Mr Fryer said distractions such as sun glare and animals could also be factors in country smashes.

And he moved to dispel the perception that most people killed on country roads were from the city.

"Two thirds of people who are dying on country roads are country people," he said.

"It is not the city-slickers coming out. These are roads that are known to the local community, and still we're seeing significant trauma on them."

Statistics showed that country roads were more dangerous than city roads.

"If you are a licence-holder in Victoria, statistically, you have four times more likelihood of dying on a country road, than you do on a metro road," Mr Fryer said.

Minister for Roads and Road Safety Luke Donnellan​ warned that fatalities caused "enormous trauma" for families, friends and communities.

"The loss of a father, brother, sister, a breadwinner ... It's the terrible suffering that the families go through, the friends go through afterwards, which is just so shattering," he said.

"Over the next couple of years we're rolling out $340 million worth of centre-line and sideline barriers, on our top 20 most deadly arterial roads in Victoria," he said.

Joe Calafiore​, CEO chief executive of the TAC, said 60 per cent of country road deaths this year had been due to "run off the road" crashes, and males were over-represented in country deaths.

Country road deaths were due to a combination of many reasons including extra exposure to driving than city motorists, long-distance driving on high speed roads – many of which did not have barrier coverage – fatigue, an ageing vehicle fleet and other factors.

"The simple, harsh reality is: a mistake on a country road is much more likely to be fatal, or a serious injury, than a mistake on a road in the inner-Melbourne area," he said.

"The best thing that you can possibly do is put yourself in the safest car that you can afford for yourself, and your kids. Drive at a safe and appropriate speed ... Separate your drinking and your driving ... take a break, be rested, don't be impaired," he said.

Dave Jones, roads and traffic manager at the RACV, said there were "some serious road safety challenges on country roads, across Victoria".

The RACV believed VicRoads should rate the whole VicRoads network on a scale of one 1 to 5 five stars, so motorists could be better informed.

"There are a whole lot of things that influence rural road safety. One is that the road surfaces are in incredibly bad condition at the moment," Mr Jones said.