Changing laws will not fix the car culture

There is an issue with the PTCS Committee’s approach to the Road Transport (Safety and Traffic Management) Amendment Bill 2021 (No 2). An opinion piece by

Narrow focus

The bill is narrowly focused on fines – the stick, filling the gap between fatality and injury. The act, as it stands, does not distinguish between a damaged road sign and a cyclist, or the walking wounded, after a collision. Jo Clay presented the bill as being about vulnerable road users, but the changes affect the driver. “We are all vulnerable road users,” she said. The bill is a narrow approach to a much bigger problem.

Strong car culture

The bill does not address the problem with our strong car culture. An ingrained car culture cannot be addressed by legal mechanisms alone. It is a social problem. The way to deal with it is the same way you would deal with a public health campaign, such as the desire that people should not smoke. The abolition of smoking is a good case study of how complex social change can be. A whole of government approach is necessary.  

Build people friendly roads

At a systems level, the roads would need to be built differently, with designs that make vulnerable road users safe. The recommendations exist (see Austroads) but TCCS does not build that way, as it could disadvantage the motorist! TCCS tradition is to disadvantage the vulnerable road user. One UK practitioner said: “If we need to put up signs, we have a design problem.” Putting it this way, the behaviour we see in the ACT today is a logical consequence of poor road designs. The road design itself is at fault. 

Leadership required

To build the sorts of roads to make vulnerable road users safe, we need to change the culture and thinking within TCCS. In short, leadership is required both at a political level and within the directorate. The leadership under Transport Minister Chris Steel is Conservative and car friendly. He tends to defend the status quo – our strongly ingrained car culture.

Movement and Place

Finally, making cities safe for people is about rebalancing urban design between movement and place. We take space away from cars where we need it for people. The ACT requires a Movement and Place Framework guideline. This policy requires the collaboration of both ACT Transport and ACT Planning. TCCS stated this in the 2018 Transport Strategy – nothing new. 

Diagnosis is the first step to any cure

The bill is a start, but has misdiagnosed the problem and is treating symptoms rather than the systemic cause.


The effect of the bill will be limited. Change is achieved in part through a carrot and stick approach. The bill will not change our culture. Changing our culture means changing the system and that will then change behaviour. Here are a few issues with the bill:

  • The way we build our city is with the overemphasis on movement and not place.
  • The strong car culture is better considered a “health issue.” 
  • Fixing the system (see the Netherlands) is better than attributing blame (legal approach).

Let’s not reinvent the wheel

Canberra is not the first city in Australia to have this problem, and Australia can look to Europe to see how it is done. Many cities do a far better job than the ACT in this regard. The issues are well understood. The academic research fills libraries and the clouds in the sky. Austroads have written guidelines. The Netherlands has been building car friendly since the 1970s.

The bill is treating COVID with cold & flu tablets. It does not address the systemic cause. 

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on

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