Driving Past: A Memoir of What Made Australia's Roads Safer

Driving Past: A Memoir of What Made Australia's Roads Safer

by Geoff Quayle


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It's almost impossible to believe that on an average weekend eight people died in road accidents in Victoria in the late 1960s with a low of four and a high of an incredible sixteen.

Geoff Quayle joined Commonwealth Department of Shipping and Transport in 1967 determined to play a role in doing something about these stark statistics.

This memoir is an insider's account of the organised activity that it took to promote meaningful traffic safety reforms in Australia, weaving personal anecdotes into the historical account.

The first steps taken in Australia were to enact strict drink-driving laws and then make seat belt wearing compulsory. However, he cautions against concentrating on ever more restrictive legislative measures to reduce the death toll on the roads that is barely as third of what it was in 1970.

Rather, he sees a continuing need to adapt the road and traffic environment to the capabilities, limitations and needs of people rather than the other way around.

Quayle argues that the automated enforcement of speed limits that bear little relationship to the risk of crashing on the safest roads, whilst failing to guide drivers as to what is a safe speed elsewhere, only compounds the problem.

As he recalls a career devoted to traffic safety, he reflects on what still needs to be done today, noting that while Australia has come a long way, it would be a dreadful mistake to revisit the blind alleys of the past.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781452530260
Publisher: Balboa Press Australia
Publication date: 09/01/2015
Pages: 326
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.68(d)

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Driving Past

A Memoir of What Made Australia's Roads Safer

By Geoff Quayle

Balboa Press

Copyright © 2015 Geoff Quayle
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4525-3026-0


How it all began

My life began in Melbourne just after the Wall Street stock market crash had plunged the world into the Great Depression that lasted through much of the 1930s. The depression delayed by almost two decades the age of mass mobility that had beckoned during the Roaring Twenties. Despite the setback, the same era saw the enclosed 'turret top' sedan replacing the 'tourer' with its fold-back canvas roof and snap-in celluloid windows.

I gained my driver's licence in 1950. By then the situation on the roads in Melbourne was already well on the way to getting out of hand. This was the result of years of neglect of the city by successive Country Party governments and the direction of resources towards the war effort, but in rural areas the situation was no better. As Geoffrey Blainey pointed out in The Tyranny of Distance, back in 1967, governments in Australia were more concerned about protecting the state-owned railways from competition by road hauliers than doing anything about the state of the roads; by contrast, privately owned railways in the United States were not protected in this way. To this day, any transport innovation that might induce a demand for travel, no matter how much the consumers ask for it, has been anathema to governments.

Thus, when the end of petrol rationing in 1950 ushered in the age of mass personal mobility, after the false dawn of the late 1930s, roads had fallen into disrepair and traffic controls were minimal. The roads were in fact more suited to the horse-drawn vehicles that were still the norm for the baker, the milkman, the fuel merchant, the iceman and the greengrocer. As an example of the mindset, when clearways were introduced in the 1960s what set them apart was not that one could not stop or park; no, the difference was that one could not drive a horse-drawn vehicle on a clearway!

Even today, more than half a century on, many of the official attitudes to road safety still reflect a time when the general public had to be protected from the few show-offs using their new toy - the horseless carriage - as typified by Kenneth Grahame's Toad in The Wind in the Willows. Indeed, the general transport policy debate may have been better if that term had remained in use or even Henry Ford's descriptive term 'gasoline buggy'. Those who could afford it had always enjoyed private personal mobility, courtesy of the horse and carriage. Indeed, the top end of the market was known as 'the carriage trade'. The internal combustion engine simply democratized mobility, something that governments, and the environmental lobbyists, seem not to have comprehended.

When peace returned in 1945, road safety got off to a poor start. Nothing was in place or was put in place that might have prevented the carnage that was to follow and which, within the next quarter of a century, would see Australia in the unenviable situation of having close to the world's worst road traffic accident fatality rate.

The creation in 1946 of the Australian Road Safety Council (ARSC) at the initial meeting of the Australian Transport Advisory Council (ATAC), comprising State and Federal ministers with responsibilities for transport, certainly did little to help. Indeed, with its emphasis clearly on blaming the driver for all that was amiss on the roads, it probably did more harm than good by diverting attention away from the adoption of measures that might have produced positive results. The Council's efforts reached their nadir with the clanger "Don't cross the Styx in '56", as though people went out on the roads with the idea of doing so then or at any time in the near future!

ATAC created two other committees at the same time as the ARSC. The Australian Motor Vehicle Standards Committee (AMVSC) and the Australian Road Traffic Code Committee (ARTCC). The committees were all to be serviced by a secretariat in the Commonwealth Department of Shipping and Transport. The latter would later be renamed the Advisory Committee on Road User Performance and Traffic Codes (ACRUPTC) reflecting an expanded remit and this was the committee with which I was to become intimately associated.

Before very long I realized that there were things that could be done that would make the roads safer for the people using them. This may seem like a presumptuous attitude for a novice driver, but it took only a little reading and the experience of driving outside Victoria to start asking why things were done so differently elsewhere. I also discovered, for example, that Tasmania had what we now call the T-junction rule.

In South Australia I found that one did not have to pull over to the left if you wanted to turn right, anywhere. I found there, too, that Stop signs meant what they did in the United Kingdom and Europe – stop and give way – and, as a result, drivers observed them. I also found that the speed limit in Adelaide was 35 mph [56 km/h], a figure higher than I had been used to. I was also impressed by the foreword to South Australia's Traffic Code booklet where the Commissioner for Police urged everyone to play the game according to the rules. A little more reading, this time of the road traffic accident fatality statistics, showed that despite not even having a practical driving test and a minimum licence age of 16 years, South Australia had the lowest fatality rate in Australia, and by a huge margin at that, but more of that later.

I still remember how I came upon the 1948 United Nations Convention on Road Traffic in the university library. In it I found that there were aids to safety that actually meant something – Give Way signs, and Stop signs like those in South Australia. Give Way signs would come to Australia much, much, later.

By now I had realized that driving could be an art and I devoured every book and motoring magazine article on the subject that I could lay my hands on. Then as I read one such book from the United Kingdom, I was surprised to find that there was no reference to any general rule of precedence at intersections in the United Kingdom comparable to the give-way-to-the-right rule that applied at all intersections in Victoria. We shall see later that, at law, not even the presence of traffic lights at an intersection could over-ride it; people may have thought it did but we shall see that the interpretation of traffic law here was literal rather than just, or even sensible.

In the UK most intersections (or junctions as they still call them) had traffic lights, Stop signs or Give Way signs. Even at the few junctions that were not so equipped, drivers were expected to realize which was the major road and if in any doubt to give way. As I was to find out many years later, the wise decision to adopt a major/minor system of intersection priority had resulted from a recommendation from the 1929 Royal Commission on Transport.

Much of Australia would persist with a general give-way-to-the-right rule for the best part of another 50 years, with disastrous results. Indeed, it was not until 1973 that the (advisory) National Road Traffic Code was amended to guarantee the status of priority accorded by traffic signals and only in 1974 did the Stop sign take on its international meaning of stop and give way.

Another source of driving information was the series of articles on the art of driving written by ace racing driver Sir Malcolm Campbell that were serialized in the Australian magazine Motor Manual at about the same time. From this source I learned the maxim that a blindfolded passenger should think that every control movement a driver makes is because they choose to make it rather than being forced to make it to avoid a collision. The corollary to this is that the more predictable the driving environment is the more likely it is that drivers will correctly anticipate the actions of others.

Looking back I saw that my mind had been directed towards an interest in roads and traffic even before I was old enough to learn to drive. Two things stand out: first, the distinctive cars owned by relatives even before the war and, secondly, the dangers anyone faced as a driver or a passenger at any of the intersections in the neighbourhood, especially the blind corner two doors down the street from my home.

My favourite uncle who had moved to Adelaide in 1923 drove a 1934 Ford V8 sedan – the first with such an engine. It was also the last with a semi-solid fabric roof. This was replaced on the next year's model by the all-steel roof that was about to become the norm. This represented perhaps the first great advance for safety in vehicle design with occupants now contained within a steel cage for the first time, albeit with dangerous internal projections and doors that could fly open in a crash.

It would be fair to say that I set out later to emulate my uncle's exemplary driving record. Driving every day for more than 50 years, including frequent work trips to the Barossa Valley, he had only two accidents: one in the 1940s and the other not long before he died in 1978.

More spectacular, if less practical, was the monstrous red machine housed in my father's garage for the duration of the war by another uncle. This was a Stutz Bearcat, an American sports car from the Twenties replete with a huge wooden steering wheel, manual [ignition] advance and retard, crank handle, outside handbrake and four cylinders the size of paint pots. My aunt would tell the story of how my uncle had got the Stutz back in working order and as a surprise took it to pick her up after church. Far from being pleased, she roused at him for embarrassing her with the loud putt, putt, putt from the Stutz as it made its way up the steep hill to the church.

By the mid-1960s the results of pioneering research into what was actually killing and injuring people in road traffic accidents were starting to become publicly known. These included the life-saving potential of seatbelts for vehicle occupants and helmets for motorcyclists. The critical role of alcohol as a contributing factor in accident occurrence was also coming to public attention. Research undertaken by the newly established Australian Road Research Board (ARRB) was also starting to make an impact. Insights from psychology about how road users perceived situations were starting to be taken into account. One notable instance of this related to the first stage of Melbourne's first freeway, opened in 1964: when its signage was critically examined in a study by Colin Cameron and numerous deficiencies were uncovered. This perhaps marked the start of a new approach to communication with road users that led over time to the establishment of an Australian Standard for road signs and signals. ARRB also sponsored Australia's first in-depth study of road accidents conducted in Adelaide in the years 1963 to 1965 that would have far-reaching effects on the way the road accident situation would be handled.

On 2 August 1967 I left the Australian Broadcasting Control Board (ABCB) where I worked for some years as a statistical officer having decided that I would either have to grow old there or move on. The position that I took up the next day with the then Department of Shipping and Transport (DST) was again of a statistical nature providing information to the ARSC. I had seen the position advertised a couple of years before but had decided not to apply on that occasion because I did not want to work for an organisation that was so ineffectual and misguided, but more on that later.


Getting a car and keeping it running in the Fifties

Around age seven I suffered an accident that resulted in my parents becoming over-protective, so much so that I was never allowed to have a bicycle. In return, however, I was promised that when I was old enough they would buy a car.

The big day arrived towards the end of 1950. The brand-new moss green, fully imported, Austin A40 we had chosen was the first all-new car to be produced in Britain after World War II. It had independent front suspension by coil springs and a four-cylinder 10 hp overhead valve engine of 1200 cc capacity.

Being technically advanced for its time, however, presented problems for its owners, notably its inability to run smoothly on the poor quality petrol at the time. This had been quite suitable for cars of pre-war design and even for the new Holden – marketed as "Australia's own car" - that had been released in 1947. Indeed, the truly classic and still modern-looking 850 cc Morris Minor, on which I learned to drive, retained a pre-war side-valve engine, a new version of which was even used in the larger six-seater Morris Oxford introduced in 1949.

The A40 featured a compression ratio of 7.2:1 that was exceeded only by the MG TD roadster. Although low by today's standards, the compression ratio was high for its time and was meant to enhance performance and fuel economy, but not when it had to contend with 68 octane (yes 68!) petrol. In those days there was no 'super'. By comparison, today's standard fuel is 92 octane. It only occurred to me very recently that the problem in 1950 was that the technology had simply outstripped the available fuel.

The A40 engine was therefore prone to the phenomenon known as 'pinging' when straining to climb a hill, a sign that the engine timing was not right. To avoid damage it was necessary to change down on hills that today's cars would barely notice. Moreover, unburnt fuel built up on the tops of the pistons and fouled the spark plugs. Another problem was that the petrol was often dirty. Grit would block the jets that supplied the carburettor in which petrol was mixed with air to fuel the engine. Taking the bowl off the carburettor, cleaning it and blowing through the brass jets was a regular chore. So was scraping the hard carbon build-up off the spark plugs and then resetting them to the correct gap with a tool called a feeler gauge. This consisted of a graduated series of thin flexible metal strips of different thicknesses that one matched to the required spark plug gap. What was beyond the knowledgeable amateur, however, was the legendary 'de-coke' that involved taking off the cylinder head and scraping the carbon build-up off the tops of the pistons. Over its first 60, 000 km the family A40 required this on five occasions and it was not cheap.

Today, too, we take it for granted that if one pushes the clutch pedal in and moves the gear lever to the selected position the gearbox will change up or down. It was not always so. The modern gearbox has a system of parallel gear shafts along which run gears of the appropriate ratio ready to be slotted into place in a split-second – the 'synchromesh' gearbox. Indeed, these have been standard since World War II.

After the invention of synchromesh the previous form of manual gearbox was colloquially referred to as a 'crash box', for reasons that will become obvious in a moment. Before the synchromesh gearbox if one wanted to change down one had to push in the clutch, rev up the engine to what you hoped was the right speed, re-engage the clutch and move the gear lever through the 'gate'. This procedure was called 'double-declutching'. Although no longer needed routinely, the skill was regarded as worth cultivating and some drivers would show off by double-declutching. The synchromesh gearbox may have become standard but it still did not cover first gear, as this was regarded as the gear you only used to move the car off. Nevertheless, the performance of some small cars in the early 1950's was so poor that it could still be necessary to double-declutch from second gear down to first to get up hills if the car was fully laden. Indeed, I recall seeing a 1000 cc Ford Prefect being reversed up Queens Park hill in Geelong in 1955 because it could not climb the road in first, reverse being lower geared.

All this meant that if you wanted to keep the car running reliably you had to learn a fair bit about how it worked. It is a tribute to modern automotive engineering that so many people can drive around without having any idea of what is going on under the bonnet.


Excerpted from Driving Past by Geoff Quayle. Copyright © 2015 Geoff Quayle. Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Acknowledgements, ix,
Preface, xi,
Recollections, 3,
1. How it all began, 5,
2. Getting a car and keeping it running in the Fifties, 11,
3. Victoria's Bizarre Traffic Laws and Other Oddities, 17,
4. A Lifelong Passion, 25,
5. The Traffic Commission rewrites the rules, 29,
6. Limiting Drivers' Blood Alcohol Concentration, 33,
7. The problem out of control, 37,
Revolution, 39,
8. New Beginnings, 41,
9. Engineering, Medicine and Psychology to the Rescue, 43,
10. The media lend a hand, 51,
11. Record road deaths lead to compulsory seatbelt wearing, 53,
12. The Final Meeting of the Australian Road Safety Council, 55,
Reform, 57,
13 The Expert Group on Road Safety, 59,
14. The Road Safety Research Section, 61,
15. The National Review, 65,
16. The Expert Group's Report The Road — Accident Situation in Australia in 1972, 69,
17. The Expert Group's Report — The Road Accident Situation in Australia in 1975, 73,
18. The Road Safety and Standards Authority, 79,
19. Living one's work, 85,
Reincarnation, 91,
20. The Office of Road Safety, 93,
21. Black Spot Programs, 97,
22. Local Area Traffic Management, 105,
23. Public Education – a New Way, 115,
24. Priority Control at Intersections and the T-Junction Rule, 125,
Relocation, 133,
25. Along the Road to Gundagai, 135,
26. The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Road Safety, 153,
27. Driver Training and Licensing, 161,
28. Four Principles for Road Infrastructure, 169,
29. The Lost Cause, 175,
30. Marginalisation, 183,
Retirement, 191,
31 Consultancies and Submissions, 193,
32. Going Overseas, 197,
33. The Australasian College of Road Safety, 211,
34. Together Again, 215,
35. Letting Go, 217,
Reflections, 225,
36 Australia's Golden Hammer – Automated Enforcement, 227,
37 The Meaning of the Yellow Traffic Light, 243,
38 Pedestrians at Traffic Lights, 247,
39. Utility Poles, 251,
40. Government Disdain for Private Mobility, 255,
41. The Railways: A Law unto Themselves, 261,
42. Compensation without Litigation, 269,
43. Uniform Accident Information, 271,
44. Exemplary Drivers, 275,
45. Madcap to ANCAP, 279,
Resolution, 285,
46 The Seasons of Safety, 287,
47. Vision Zero – the philosophy for the future, not just a target, 295,
48 Protecting the Revolution, 301,
Appendix, 307,
Abbreviations, 311,

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