Medical groups are calling on the NT Government to abandon its trial of open speed on the Stuart Highway, which is due to start tomorrow.

Dr Christine Connors, Chair of The Royal Australasian College of Physicians NT Committee, says the trial will take a deadly toll. “There is no question that this trial will place the lives of Territorian road users at greater risk,” she warns below.

Christine Connors writes:

As a specialist who has worked in emergency care in the Territory, I have witnessed firsthand the carnage inflicted on people as a result of high-speed road crashes.

I have seen people with horrific and life-changing injuries, and those who have had their lives tragically cut short as a result of speed.

Treating people seriously injured from road trauma is made more complicated in the Territory due to the large distances between remote roads and hospitals. I have performed aeromedical retrievals for people with terrible head, chest and limb injuries from road trauma.

Managing severe trauma is always a challenge, and doing this whilst flying hundreds of kilometres makes it more difficult. Often the family of the victim has to travel separately only to be told bad news on their arrival to hospital.

With the Northern Territory due to trial an open speed on the Stuart Highway starting this Saturday, The Royal Australasian College of Physicians, The Australian Medical Association NT Branch, The Australasian College for Emergency Medicine and The Royal Australasian College of Surgeons have joined forces calling for the trial to be scrapped.

This is based both on worldwide evidence and what we see in our jobs every day.

Irrefutable evidence

The evidence linking speed and road crashes is irrefutable. The higher the speed, the greater the risk of a crash, the more severe the injuries and the higher the chance of death.

The recently released 2013 data on road deaths has shown a very positive reduction from 2012 of nearly 25%. The Chief Minister announced the results and stated “even one death on Territory roads is too many”.

We strongly agree with his statement. Our concern is that this open speed trial will undermine the Chief Minister’s expressed wish to minimise road deaths.

As reported in the NT News, the Chief Minister was reported as saying that speed does not kill people on our roads.

This is incorrect and irresponsible. Speed kills – it’s a fact. The Chief Minister’s own Government report notes that ‘too often, alcohol and speed are a factor’ and ‘vehicle speed influences all crashes’.

Allowing the open speed trial to go ahead is contradictory to the Government’s message of promoting a safe driving culture.

The NT tragically has the highest proportion of road deaths per 100,000 population in any state or territory since 1975 (see here and here). Many of these deaths can be attributed to speed. In 2012, 39 per cent of all NT road fatalities and serious injuries were a result of speed. In 2012, road accidents in the Territory accounted for 20 deaths per 100,000 population. This is more than four times the rate of NSW, VIC, ACT and SA.

The AusRAP 2013 report shows the NT has the worst roads in Australia.

What is particularly worrying is that the report also shows two-thirds of the 1700km long Stuart Highway is made up of the lowest categories of one-star or two-star rated roads. Having an open speed limit on a road of this low quality is dangerous.

While planned improvements to the Stuart Highway are welcomed, it remains to be seen if that will bring them up to a high standard. However, no amount of road upgrades or improvements will save someone who loses control of their vehicle at 180km/h.

The NT Government has refused to release the reports it commissioned into investigating the risks of an open speed limit. This is not in keeping with the transparent, evidence-based platform on which it was elected.

As the Government won’t release the reports, I can only speculate that the reports find that speed kills and support the use of speed limits on NT roads.

There is no question that this trial will place the lives of Territorian road users at greater risk. Taking a measured, long-term and evidence-based approach to safely manage speed in the Territory should be the priority for the NT Government.

We call on the NT Government to fulfil its stated commitment to evaluate relevant evidence and data in a transparent fashion and abandon the open speed trial.

• Dr Christine Connors, Chair of The Royal Australasian College of Physicians NT Committee

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