On the one hand our state governments in Australia are quick to take personal responsibility away from the taxpayer. On our roads otherwise normal and sane adults are treated like school children once were, whacked with a ruler every time they exceed an arbitrary number with a red circle around it. As time goes on speed limits are lowered, more cameras installed, and a greater police presence is promised each public holiday.
Yet while this obsession with slowing down has expanded, our governments and the police have done little to evolve their policies around killers on our roads far greater than those trundling a handful of kilometres above the speed limit – namely fatigue and drink driving.
Sure there are booze buses and billboards telling us to stop, revive and survive. There has been for decades. But when it comes to the responsibility of governments to think of solutions beyond telling people what not to do, our authorities are quick to shuffle their backs towards the wall, cover their eyes and heap all responsibility straight back onto your shoulders.
There should be no excuse for drink driving nor falling asleep behind the wheel. Yet governments cannot ignore the reality that people continue to die on our roads because of these factors, and they are doing nothing more about it, or at the very least a whole lot less than they are obsessing over speed.
Which brings me to the crux of this opinion piece – fatalities or no fatalities, governments need to be striving to provide intelligent public transport solutions to insist on taking drivers off the road, be they drunk, tired or for the most part just not very good at taking to the wheel.
So I cast my mind back to when I was in the latter part of my teenage years, as someone who enjoyed a good drink and dance in the Sydney CBD but lived around 30 kilometres west in middle-class suburbia.
It would be a relatively easy train ride into the city, but many hours, songs and glasses later, Sydney’s trains would halt at around midnight and switch to a series of bus services tagged ‘night ride’.
These buses are infrequent, often have queues snaking well back from their pickup points, and when you finally get on board they are lumbering, waddling vessels that are guaranteed to make even the most steely-resolved liver turn queasy. The buses are all-stops affairs to almost triple the usual half-hour train ride home.
So bad are these buses that I often stayed in the city until the early hours just to catch the first train home. While I never blipped the remote and twisted the key of my car while drunk, plenty of people have. Others choose drugs instead of drinking, a designated driver in the group who would stay stone cold sober to drive drunk mates home, but would be so high he’d be chewing his eyebrows off.
It is unacceptable, but it is a reality – and surely giving people valid public transport options has to be part of the solution.
A catchy campaign in New South Wales lists getting a taxi as your ‘plan B’ but this is simply not an option for cash-starved students.
The irony is the further west from the city you head, the lower the socio-economic background and the harder it is to get home. Cuddly federal treasurer Joe Hockey may believe that poor people can’t afford cars, but they certainly cannot afford a $100 taxi fare home.
So almost a decade on, nothing has changed and evolved except a curfew is imposed on certain parts of Sydney to stop serving drinks at 10pm. Stick... whacked.
And the problems exist in outer suburbs of Melbourne such as Cranbourne, Tarneit and Deer Park, and ‘burbs of Perth such as Hillarys, Byford and Ellenbrook.
But running trains through the wee hours isn’t enough, as though getting drunks off our roads should be the crux of the reason why we should implement public transport changes. No, intelligent solutions are required across our country.
To illustrate the point, it takes longer today than it did in the 1960s to catch an express train between the Sydney CBD and the second largest city in the state, Parramatta (where I grew up).
From station to station, it takes a train almost the same time as it would to travel between the two business districts as it does to drive in non-peak hour. But Sydney is now locked in a permanent peak hour; a decade ago I could leave Parramatta at 9:30am and be at Sydney University on the fringe of the CBD a mere half-hour later, where now you’d be lucky to do it in double that.
Yet taking a train is still not the smart option, because for the most part people do not live beside, above or under a main train station, and nor is their destination. It’s why trains should in my view aim to halve the time it takes by car, just to compensate.
Why not burrow through the Blue Mountains and unlock the wonderful western plains of New South Wales that takes an agonising amount of time to crawl over by car. Push fast rail out towards the western plains and bring those people into the cities quickly and efficiently. The fast rail can then stop at major western suburbs stations such as Parramatta, and lead on in around 12 minutes to the city – it is entirely feasible and absolutely technically possible.
We need that fast rail to power between Sydney and our nation’s capital, rather than forcing some of my public-servant friends onto a dreadfully slow Murray’s bus if not commuting on one of the country’s most popular driving routes.
Yet you also can’t help but wonder if one of the reasons fast rail doesn’t push on towards Melbourne is that it would kill one of the most popular flying routes in the world for our beleaguered national airline.
Even someone who hopelessly, utterly loves driving has to acknowledge that public transport is the answer for safely and efficiently moving Australians, and unlocking parts of our nation and the people in them that are currently curbed by the tyranny of distance and the time it takes to drive.
For driving enthusiasts, it means taking people who really don’t love to drive, and therefore can’t be bothered putting effort into driving well, off the roads – and if you’ve ever driven in Australia, you’ll know how such a possibility should be celebrated.
A mere atom of a solution – getting drunks off the roads on Friday nights – turns into a wider nebular of achievement, and that’s before we even talk about how taking cars off our roads would instantly reduce fatigue, that other great killer.
Yet with governments obsessed with pointing the finger, shifting blame and ticking boxes, intelligent solutions are fanciful.
It’s worth remembering that in 1932 when there were barely any cars on the road we opened a Sydney Harbour Bridge that was eight lanes wide, yet in 1995 the ribbon was cut over a now permanently clogged M5 tunnel with half the number of lanes. In 1972 we turned the taps on a clean energy revelation called the Snowy Hydro Scheme, yet today our leaders proclaim coal the way forward.
It’s no different to the fact that in the 1950s we built new homes in new suburbs branching off train lines, and today despite environmental reports and wider documentation, we have built new suburbs without any form of real public transport.
To stop engineering and building cars in Australia is fitting, because today’s Australia is uninspired, the modern-day equivalent of former prime minister Paul Keating’s warning that we would turn into a banana republic, only this time with a series of shovels in our hands. Effective transport solutions is only one issue that we should all be pushing our leaders about, then turning the stick back on them.