The Weakest Link


On one of the Kings Highway’s sharp, winding bends, you’ll pass a small cave near the top of Clyde Mountain. It’s the now blocked entrance to a tunnel leading into the mountain and under the road. Such was the importance of the road linking Canberra and the coast that during the Second World War, this tunnel was packed with explosives and manned by soldiers ordered to destroy the road if an invasion occurred. The decision to locate the national capital inland was no accident. Security was the primary reason why sites on the coast were rejected. Australians though love the sand and the sea, and since Canberra’s earliest days the journey down the Kings Highway has been a tradition for residents.

Today, the highway remains the vital link between Canberra and the South Coast. It carries not only holiday seekers but also a growing number of commuters from booming regional developments throughout Queanbeyan and Palerang Shires. The soldiers and explosives are long gone, yet the potential for destruction has remained.  It’s something we’re frequently reminded of, exacerbated by the deficiencies of the road and too often realised due to the behavior of motorists. In a five year period between 2003 and 2007, 18 people have died on the kings highway, with a further 418 injured in road accidents.

Over the Canberra Day long weekend, two separate accidents resulted in the deaths of 5 more people a tragedy that this time struck close to the ANU community. On Friday travelling to Jyndabyne, Brian Burdett and his two young daughters Sky and Kayla died when their vehicle crossed to the wrong side of the road, colliding with an oncoming vehicle. Within 48 hours, another accident killed two ANU students and seriously injured a third when their Holden Astra impacted a tree while overtaking.

Both accidents occurred not far from one another, on a stretch of highway between Braidwood and the Clyde Mountain. It’s a stretch on the eastern section of the highway; a section where despite having lower traffic flows than closer to Canberra, the rate of casualty crashes massively increases.

For it’s entire length, the average number of casualty crashes on the Kings Highway is marginally better than the statewide average for rural undivided carriageways. This overall figure though belies the danger faced by those who travel its eastern reaches. Motorists travelling between Braidwood and Batemans Bay face average crash rates far higher than between Canberra and Bungendore, almost double the state average. Within Eurobodalla Shire where the eastern end of the highway terminates, the Kings Highway has an accident rate almost 40% higher than the nearby Princess Highway, itself regarded as one of the state’s worst roads.

Following this month’s accidents, decades old calls for the road to be improved have again been voiced. While improvements have been made to the road over time, most recently to support the new Joint Defence Headquarters near Bungendore, many deficiencies remain.

Significant lengths of the highway have lane and shoulder widths below those recommended by RTA standards. Some sections have no shoulders at all. Many sections of the road have aging pavement and poor structural integrity. The highway’s alignment includes almost triple the state average of high-risk corners.

Despite the inherent dangers of the road, one cannot escape the fact though that the majority of the 4000 people, who use its entire length daily, do not encounter harm. Nor can one escape the truth that a high proportion of accidents result from the behavior and mistakes of road users.

NSW Police have indicated both accidents over the Canberra Day long weekend were the result of driver error. Speeding, likely mixed with fatigue. In the case of the second accident in which two ANU students died, reports suggest the driver was overtaking at speed on a section of road marked with double unbroken lines. An illegal maneuver, the driver lost control, impacting a tree some distance from the road. This scenario is not unique. A majority of accidents on the Kings Highway involve single vehicles, running off the road, with a large proportion involving speed as a factor.

There is little prospect for improvement of the road in the near term, with plans suggesting no significant remediation work is to take place before 2014. In the meantime, motorists continue to face a road replete with potential hazards. With the Easter long weekend approaching, traditionally a high accident period, it’s important to realise that none of these hazards are insurmountable for drivers exercising care and who are aware of both the road’s inherent hazards and their own limits.

Published in Woroni (ANU Student Media) – March 2012