RBT big step to cut road death toll

For a long part of Australia’s motoring history, Australian drivers knew they really shouldn’t drink and drive.

But they did it anyway, chancing they would not get caught on the way home.

That casual attitude was reflected in appalling road accident statistics, with alcohol regarded as a factor in at least a third and perhaps half of all fatal crashes.

The introduction of random breath testing (RBT) changed all that.

Now in place in all states and territories, RBT in the early 1980s only existed in Victoria and on a trial basis in South Australia and the Northern Territory.

The process of extending that across the nation was given a good push along by the Liberal government of Malcolm Fraser.

Cabinet papers for 1982 – released by the National Archives of Australia – show a House of Representatives committee made a strong case for federal government support for RBT across the nation.

“The committee concluded that community attitudes and pressures resulted in people drinking and driving and that the effectiveness of penalties depended upon drivers’ estimations of detection,” a submission to cabinet said.

That submission by then transport minister Ralph Hunt and acting health minister Peter Baume said Commonwealth budget spending in 1980/81 directly attributable to road accidents amounted to $100 million.

Australia’s road death toll rose steadily from the day the first car turned a wheel, slowing slightly during the Great Depression and World War II but peaking at almost 4000 a year in the late 1960s.

Dramatic falls followed a range of measures, starting with compulsory use of seatbelts in the 1970s.

Random breath testing followed, first by Victoria in 1976 and then by the Northern Territory (1980), South Australia (1981), NSW and the ACT (1982), Tasmania (1983) and Queensland and Western Australia (1988).

Car and road design both contributed to the falling road death rate which in 2010 stood at 1368.

In their submission to cabinet in 1982, Hunt and Baume said there was substantial evidence that RBT was effective as a deterrent to drink driving.

“Indications are that direct government action on road safety through measures such as random breath testing receives general community support far outweighing any perceived civil liberty concerns,” they said.

They proposed the Commonwealth take the lead, using the meeting of the Australian Transport Advisory Committee in Tasmania in February 1982 to push other states and territories to adopt RBT.

For its part the Commonwealth would back development of a national anti-drink driving campaign.

There was one early holdout.

The Department of the Capital Territory – this was long before the ACT gained self-government – expressed “grave reservations” about the need to safeguard individual privacy.

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