Harnessing global innovation for the Australian road sector

Paul Bennett from SafeGear Australia has been travelling the globe sourcing the latest safety technology in road construction. He is now sharing his experiences and the innovative products he encountered with Australian industry.Anyone familiar with the classic 1985 comedy National Lampoon’s European Vacation will fondly remember the wacky adventures of the American Griswold family as they travelled through England, France and Italy.

One scene that sticks is when the Griswolds enter a London roundabout and find themselves stuck on the inside lane for what looks like hours. The patriarch, Clark, even looks as though he’s lost a bit of sanity by the end of the ordeal.

The Griswold’s pains to navigate the roundabout are laughable, but the sad truth is that the struggle is all too real. The fact is that roundabouts, despite being a mainstay of European and Australasian roads for decades, are relatively new to the United States.

The world’s first roundabout was built in Bath in England nearly 100 years ago and by 1958 the United Kingdom had standardised it on its roads.

“Europe and the Commonwealth took it on straight after England, but places like the US have only started introducing roundabouts since the 1990s,” explains Paul Bennett, Managing Director of SafeGear Australia.

“Roundabouts are irrefutably brilliant,” he states. “At a crossroads there are 32 points of potential impact, especially for pedestrians. By using a roundabout that goes from 32 points to four.”

It took the US years before truly adopting the concept even though the British had been seeing the benefits for decades.

Mr. Bennett cites a survey conducted in the US that measured the public perception of roundabouts before and after implementation. Before roundabouts made it onto US roads, 81 per cent of people interviewed gave a negative approval rating and didn’t see the need for them. After roundabouts had been installed on the roads for 12 months, 76 per cent of those interviewed gave a positive approval rating.

He asserts that new innovations in road safety will always be scrutinised, but once someone makes that first step to implement something new there’s always potential to gain some great outcomes.

For the past few years, Mr. Bennett has travelled the globe searching for leading road safety technology and working with innovators and leaders abroad and at home to help improve Australia’s safety outcomes.

He’s been working in the Australian safety industry for more than 10 years on both sides of the supply chain as retailer and distributor/wholesaler of safety products. His experience, combined with a confronting incident became the catalyst to him undertaking an extensive global search for the best safety innovations.

A traffic controller was struck and killed in an accident quite close to his house, and the incident has stuck with him since. “That was a real eye-opener. This sort of stuff doesn’t need to happen. If we were more safety aware we could do a lot to prevent this sort of thing from happening.

“I’m passionate about what I’m trying to achieve and I have found the most effective course is to look around the world at what other people are doing.”

Mr. Bennett has undertaken two trips in 2016 already. In February he met with suppliers in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, England, Hong Kong, China, Taiwan and Singapore.

In April he attended the InterTraffic Trade Show in Amsterdam and travelled to Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Abu Dhabi, many of which included factory visits.

The goal of this journey was to see what innovations are leading the road safety sector around the world, and try to introduce some of those to Australia. The ultimate aim is to improve the nation’s safety statistics and prevent avoidable accidents/fatalities, for both the public and road workers.

Mr. Bennett cites some recent statistics from Australian Asphalt Pavement Association (AAPA) in this context.

In 2015, AAPA members recorded more than 600 incidents at roadwork sites in Victoria alone. AAPA member companies with workers on the ground and operating at roadwork zones across the state saw 395 incidents and 245 near misses.

This small snapshot of the proved risks associated with roadwork safety has been generated by just 60 per cent of the association’s membership base.

Australia’s vast, rural road network is part of the issue. The expansive networks are difficult to maintain to a peak standard, unlike the well-established roads in older and smaller nations such as England.

“We’re not really where a first world country should be, and if we are to think of ourselves as a forward-thinking nation we need to improve those crash statistics,” he says. “The stats don’t lie.”

The problems with adopting any new technology or system, in general, are the many roadblocks. “I think cost is probably the major hurdle, as well as the threat of liability. For every product that comes through, no matter how small, it takes a lot of investment,” he says. “For these reasons, many places are very reluctant to innovate.”

Another issue is that many are reluctant to be the first to take the risk of adopting something new. “It’s easier to accept being in a bad position as long as everyone else is in that same bad position,” he says. For any kind of progress in adopting new technology, safety or otherwise, someone needs to take that first step. As Mr. Bennett puts it: “I try to present the potential benefits of new technology and thereby allow people the confidence to ‘take that first step’.”

Australia’s individual state rules and regulations in regards to road safety products, such as signs and high-vis clothing, provide complications, as almost every new product will need to be adapted to individual state requirements in some way.

Mr. Bennett suggests that new products could be introduced with a more harmonised approach across the states, whereby innovation is adopted more easily. “I think there’s a lot of goodwill to harmonise.”

The technology to help reduce dangers for road workers and road-users is out there. Many countries host new, cutting-edge technologies and safety applications in this space. They’re great examples of why it’s important to adopt new ideas and concepts.

Mr. Bennett is now trying to apply some of these lessons and new products in the global safety market to Australia. How he communicates with and bridges the gaps between end-users, distributors, regulatory bodies and local government is through his collaboration with AAPA.

“It’s very important that AAPA helps point me in the right direction. They have been on the front foot and proactive,” he says.

He has been presenting at the association’s national Breakfast Series events, talking about his trips and detailing some of the products he encountered and is trying to introduce to the Australian industry.

Some of the key international themes involve big data and radar technology, but also the practical products out there that are simple, but innovative improvements of their predecessors.

One unique example is photoluminescent clothing, or in layman’s terms, items that glow in the dark.

Fluorescent clothing with retro-reflective strips are strict requirement for workers on Australian roads, but most are dependent on a light source to make them visible. “What happens when you’re on a bend in the dark?” asks Mr. Bennett.

Photoluminescent clothing uses special paint that absorbs the UV rays either from the sun or artificial light sources to power its luminescence, even in pitch black and without requiring an external light or power source. “It’s brand new. Battery-powered clothing has been explored in the past, which artificially lights up. But they can crack or deteriorate under normal wear and tear,” he says. The clothing can be washed and has proved resilient to general working conditions.

Another new product Mr. Bennett has looked into is an intelligent LED traffic signalling and pedestrian crossing system. In this system the aluminium poles for mounting traffic lights have LEDs embedded within the front of the pole, which illuminate in sequence with the traffic signal (green, amber or red). This creates a clear and unmissable signal to approaching drivers. Similarly, when pedestrians see the green-man to cross the road the underside of the pole holding the traffic lights illuminate the path across the road for safer crossing. “They really are simple – it is literally a plug and play and in most cities you could run them off solar power. It is really cutting edge,” says Mr. Bennett.

He also looked into a new take on the truck-mounted attenuator (TMA) in the form of an emergency stopping device (ESD), a system deployed on roads to bring a vehicle approaching danger to a forced but controlled stop. He says they are particularly effective for lane closures and road works and protect both drivers and road workers operating in work zones close to traffic.

“The TMA is a controlled crash system. The system I’m working on will be cheaper and safer than more conventional systems. It’s not a controlled crash but a controlled stop.”

When deployed, the ESD embeds a rubber stopping pad in the road, which can bring a 15-tonne truck travelling at up to 80 kilometres per hour to a quick and controlled stop.

“It’s not perfect, it’s not even ideal, but it’s very practical and a great deal better than ploughing into road works and workers. It is still in development and I believe it will be improved even further.”

Mr. Bennett says he received a lot of interest from his talks at the AAPA Breakfast series, particularly in Adelaide where the products were met with a positive response.

His quest to source new safety concepts for Australian roads continues, and he anticipates that he’ll be travelling again in about three months. Japan will be on his list of countries to visit this time.

Mr. Bennett aims to continue informing the Australian industry on what is available out there in the realm of road safety, and he maintains a clear and concise approach in how to achieve that. “My model at this time is to stay small, taking on the work and to be careful to make sure we do things for all the right reasons.”

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