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by John Cadogan

Soames Job is probably not a name you know. If you live in NSW, however, you’ve seen his work. Because he’s just kicked a very public ‘own goal’, at least in my view. It would be funny if lives weren’t at stake.

Mr Job is the boss of road safety policy at the NSW Roads and Traffic Authority. We’ll get to the ‘own goal’ in a sec. It’s epic.

But let’s put the RTA in context first: The RTA has a massive multi-billion-dollar, taxpayer-funded budget. You pay for it, and so do I. It works for us. The RTA is supposed to be answerable to the NSW Minister for Roads – which is a kind of ‘clearing-house’ ministerial position. It’s a literally ministerial role with L-plates, a position the Premier historically elevates a NSW back-bencher to, with the promise of a better job soon on the proviso they don’t bugger it up too badly. Some do. Most move on and up.

Think of it as a ‘pending-tray’ ministry. One that (in the eyes of the Government) doesn’t really matter. Most of the incumbents aren’t in the job long enough for their arses to warm the chair at Parliament House, let alone forge positive change. Which is one of the reasons the RTA is a case of the tail wagging the dog – senior bureaucrats in the RTA tell the minister what to say and do … not the other way around. Which is one of the reasons the RTA could teach even the Tax Office a thing or two about arrogance.

Here’s an example of how it all works: Last year I was at a press conference at Crashlab, which is an impressive facility for Australia, but can’t hold a candle to the crash-test facilities of the major carmakers overseas. Then-Minister Michael Daly was there to read a five-star crashworthiness-related announcement. Ministers aren’t expected to understand the technicalities, but you can tell when one is reading a speech they saw for the first time in the car on the way to the event. Seeing this process in action can erode any lingering faith you have in politics.

The written-by-a-staffer and delivered-by-the-puppet announcement was duly read with the network news cameras rolling and with the state’s two top news radio agencies in flanking positions. After that came questions and answers from the floor … which, frankly, Minister Daly struggled with. And we’re talking basic stuff here. Stuff like “What does this mean, minister?” Blank stare…

After the broadcast media got their questions out of the way and had thereby secured plenty of footage of the minister bumbling, I asked him words to the effect of whether he’d consider making it a policy decision to put only five-star vehicles on the NSW Government fleet. In my view this would make a steady supply of used five-star cars available to the general public at attractive prices as the Government rolled its fleet cars over into the used market. It’s a smart, road-trauma-reducing initiative for the medium term. He paused for a little bit too long (I thought he was having a run-time error, ‘upstairs’) and then responded with words to the effect that it sounded like a good idea, and that he’d discuss it with the RTA. Which is minister-to-journalist code for ‘shut up’.

But it is a good idea. I guarantee it never got discussed, however, and it’ll certainly never happen. But it was fun asking.

The tragedy here is that a bloke with academic qualifications up the wazoo like the RTA’s Mr Job didn’t a) think of this idea and b) tell the minister that was what he was implementing. Too busy with speed and red light cameras and advertising agencies, I suppose.

Which brings us to the Soames Job/RTA ‘own goal’. For the rest of this story, you might want to picture Mr Job in the manner of Darth Vader in a suit, only without the breathing difficulties or the charm, because this is how he always seems to me.

Mr Job has approved a radio ad that’s airing across NSW right now. It’s advertising the so-called NSW ‘safety’ cameras that will ping you for crashing a red light, or for speeding through an intersection. Or both, if you score a ‘double whammy’.

Up front, let me say I have no problem with this. Crashing red lights is monumentally dangerous. So is speeding through intersections. Either behaviour is indefensible, and it needs to be stopped. The RTA can fine as many people as possible for this, with my complete, unconditional support.

So it’s not the ‘safety’ cameras or their promotion that offends me. It’s the manner of the execution of the ad. Its execution is – let’s be kind – monumentally flawed. So flawed that it will actually contribute to ongoing road trauma.

In this advertisement, a father (a passenger in a car) is talking to a son (driving the car). He’s acting as a mentor, giving the son advice about how to drive through the intersection. The son says words to the effect that seeing the light ahead is green, so it’s okay to proceed through the junction. The father replies that the son should “watch” his speed through the junction – otherwise he risks being pinged by the cameras. There’s no other advice.

Are you offended yet? Because you should be. Any experienced driver knows that eyes glued to your speedo on the way through an intersection is monumentally dangerous.

Here’s why: Around 50 per cent of road trauma occurs at intersections. If road trauma costs $20 billion nationally each year, then the ‘intersections’ component of it has to be around $10 billion. It does not occur because there is any defect in the rules at intersections. These are robust. If everyone complied with their ‘give way’ obligations there would be no trauma at intersections.

Unfortunately, expecting 100 per cent compliance is the same as living in a fool’s paradise. If you are going to manage risk as you drive, and you should, you have to admit – and deal with – the risk that you might proceed through an intersection at the same time as someone fails to give way.

Why the non-compliance? Maybe the non-compliers at intersections are texting, or drunk, or they just smoked a dozen joints. Maybe they’re just goofing off mentally, trying to stream music to their stereo, perving at their girlfriend’s legs, or reaching back to pick up a baby’s bottle. Maybe they just got off a boat from Afghanistan via Asia and they’ve only been driving for 20 minutes – who knows? They’re just not driving appropriately, which is an unfortunate reality on the road.

As a result, you can bet those ‘safety’ cameras take some impressive pictures of the crashes they cannot hope to prevent.

There is an infinity of reasons people don’t give way when they should, and often those notionally ‘in the right’ fail to manage risk effectively (by failing to scan the intersection appropriately before proceeding through – a bit like not wearing your safety specs in a workshop because usually you don’t get something flung into your eye by the grinder).

Crashes at intersections are usually very bad because the front of one vehicle usually hits the side of another (that’s bad if you’re the one struck on the side), and there are often poles, pedestrians and other motorists in close proximity to become collateral damage.

So if you are mentoring a young driver, please – please – don’t follow the RTA’s advice here. Don’t tell your son or daughter to glue their eyes to the speedo on the way through the intersection. It’s essential for every responsible driver to look left and right to ensure wayward, incompetent, inattentive and negligent drivers aren’t about to fail to give way. Your own safety, the safety of everyone in your car, and even in the wayward driver’s car, depends on it.

It’s not much fun, I suppose, waking up in intensive care following some time in the limbo of a medically induced coma after suffering a profound traumatic brain injury, only to lie there, unable to function, until a bed in a nursing home becomes available, on which you will spend the rest of your life. With your intellect fully intact. I doubt it’s much consolation that, in the lead-up to your injury you weren’t speeding, and were notionally ‘in the right’. You’ll have a long time to think about this stuff. The term ‘living hell’ comes to mind.

Unfortunately, this nightmare scenario is an all-too-common outcome from crashes at intersections. Head injury is the most common type of serious injury in car crashes.

That RTA radio advertisement is a road-safety travesty. I don’t think this is malicious – it’s way more likely just to be bureaucratic incompetence at work. That doesn’t make it okay, however. A really bright – but dead – bloke named Voltaire once said men were guilty of the good they failed to do. On Voltaire’s terms, that makes Soames Job guilty. As sin. In my opinion. Especially as he’s spending my money – and yours – committing it. That taxpayer-funded ad could have spelled out the real risk at intersections and detailed how to mitigate it, and thereby actually cut some road trauma. But instead it’s too busy trying to be clever, promoting the latest Soames Job product: ‘safety’ cameras, for a camera-obsessed bureaucracy.

If I were suddenly the Roads Minister – unlikely, I know – my first order of business would be to make the RTA a much leaner organisation. I would start this long and painful process by making it exactly one Soames Job lighter.






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