A catastrophic stroke I suffered in 2020 forced me to medically retire in July 2022, ending my 36-year career that ranged from Ronan Point and the Channel Tunnel in the UK, to workplace and vehicle safety in Australia, writes Dan Leavy.

"Thinking the final 15 years of my career that were spent in developing vehicle safety policies with Transport for New South Wales (TfNSW) had passed unnoticed, I was pleasantly surprised to find that in the Australian Honours list (an Australian system acknowledging outstanding service and contributions of Australians across all works of life), announced in June 2023, I was to receive the Public Service Medal (PSM) “for outstanding service through improving vehicle and road safety across the NSW road network”.

Dan Leavy with NSW governor Margaret Beazley. Photo: Rob Tuckwell.

While this is a tremendous honour in recognition of my career, it is notable that it was not awarded for any contribution I made to engineering itself, but rather for a range of policies, codes, consumer programmes, standards and regulations I developed and implemented for vehicle safety that helped reduce the road toll in NSW.

Although there are no dramatic engineering projects among them, my achievements were largely a result using my engineering mindset that allowed me to break complex technical subjects into logical components and to put these into plain English, which achieved results.

Significant contributions

What is most gratifying about the award is that it recognises that my contributions as a public servant to vehicle and road safety in NSW have helped reduce road trauma and may even have saved lives. Notable projects and programmes to which I made significant contributions include:

  • Restructuring the Child Restraint Evaluation Program (CREP) so that it gained the support of child car-seat manufacturers to the extent that some are now showing the CREP ratings on their products – see following link;
  • As a member of the Vehicle Safety Research Group, an Australasian committee that engaged Monash University’s accident Research Centre (MUARC) to carry out research programmes on in-service vehicles using its database of more than seven million real-world crashes. Every year, it released the Used Car Safety stings, an invaluable guide that emphasised safety for consumers looking for a used car. As chair for seven years, I directed that its projects contribute to the Australian or New Zealand Road Safety Strategies – see following link;
  • As NSW’s representative on the Commonwealth government’s Strategic Vehicle Safety and Environment Group responsible for overseeing the development and maintenance of mandatory standards for road vehicles supplied to the Australian market (known as the Australian Design Rules, or ADRs); there I was the principal advocate for the introduction of ABS brakes on motorcycles sold in Australia; and that the ADRs better align with international best practice and that Australia is quicker at adopting new international vehicle standards. I also updated the 'Guidelines for the construction of Street hotrods in Australia' “to better align with NSW’s vehicle regulations";
  • Contributed to the policy for seatbelts on rural and regional buses, and to the policy that applies to motor vehicles as a ‘place of work’;
  • Administering the Engineering Certification Scheme for vehicle modifications and one-off vehicles. For these vehicles I developed the handbook ‘Alternative means for demonstrating compliance with third Edition ADRs' that provided alternatives to destructive and impracticable tests;
  • Research for amending the legal definition of an ‘approved motorcycle helmet’ that enabled a wider range of helmets to be used in NSW. This was adopted across Australia;
  • As a member of the Australasian New Car Assessment Program ANCAP Council, developing ANCAP’s Variant policy that allowed a vehicle’s safety rating to be applied to variants and similar vehicles;
  • Specifying the minimum safety features for light vehicles used in the NSW government fleet;
  • Research that informed the legal specifications for power assisted pedal cycles, which also eliminated bicycles powered by a petrol engine. This was adopted across Australia;
  • Research that informed the regulations for bullbars in NSW.

Of all my achievements, two in particular stand out.

1) Developing a rating scheme for motorcycle protective clothing

I established an Australasian working group to look at improving motorcyclists’ safety by increasing the use of effective motorcycle protective clothing. This was in response to the number of motorcyclists represented in serious injury and fatality data, which was the subject of a NSW Government Staysafe inquiry.

The project eventually developed into 'the ‘motorcycle clothing assessment programme’, or MotoCAP. The working group engaged Deakin University’s Institute for Frontier Materials laboratory to test items marketed as motorcycle protective clothing – jackets, pants and gloves (there was already an established programme for assessing helmets, while boots had to meet mandatory consumer standards).

These were tested for their resistance to the abrasion, impact and bursting, forces that are experienced in a typical motorcycle crash. The garment’s thermal insulation and its ability to wick sweat away from its wearer, and the waterproofness of clothing if marketed as such.

The tests were from established international standards, modified for Australian conditions. The results were assessed against carefully determined parameters and used to develop a world’s-first rating system for safety and thermal comfort, an important consideration in the harsh Australian climate.

In 2019, just two years after it was launched, MotoCAP was awarded the Federation Internationalede Motorotorcyclisme’s (FIM’s ) prestigious ‘Road Safety Award’ and I was presented with the FIM Road Safety Award on behalf of the MotoCAP members at their yearly event in Monaco in December 2019. For more information about MotoCap, see following Link.

Dan Leavy receiving his FIM award. Photo: Good Shoot.

2) Transforming a disused airport into a vehicle test facility

Recently, more and more vehicles have been fitted with active safety features – ones that deploy automatically without driver intervention – and some cars have even become fully autonomous. There was nowhere in Australia to test these systems and vehicles, so their suitability for the unique Australian environment could not be assessed, nor could new models be subjected to ANCAP’s full test regime.

View of the test track prior to its redevelopment. Photo: Dan Leavy.

View of test track following its redevelopment. Photo: Dan Leavy.

In 2016 ANCAP aligned its assessment protocols with EuroNCAP, (its European equivalent),which includes active safety features in its protocols. This meant that the safety ratings obtained in one programme could not be accepted by the other under their mutual recognition agreement. I was charged with resolving this problem, either by finding a suitable stretch of existing road where the tests could be conducted, or identifying a suitable site for constructing a test track.

I became aware of a disused airport at Cudal, a small town about 300km west of Sydney. As chance would have it, the airport was for sale. An initial reconnoitre of the site revealed a 1,600m-long runway that could form the basis of a test track and there was plenty of room on the 32-hectare site to expand into a facility for other road safety and transport infrastructure research.

However, the surface of the runway showed considerable distress, and there appeared to be some undulations along its length that would require levelling out. 

TfNSW decided to initially lease the site to investigate its suitability as a test facility. Several preliminary investigations were required to determine if there were any indigenous artefacts or sacred sites present, and whether there was any Pfas (poisonous chemicals used in some airport firefighting foams) residue on the land and to fully deregister the site as an airport. This would remove the aerial restrictions and allow drones be used, as well as remove the risk of aircraft trying to use the site.  

‘A gravity road’

A detailed survey of the runway showed the sub-base to be in excellent condition and my fears of it requiring extensive work to regrade it were unfounded; the apparent undulations along its length were caused by the profile of the adjacent land – this phenomenon is known as ‘a gravity road’ where cars can be seen to apparently roll uphill.

Overall, the site was shown to be favourable, but the runway did need resurfacing to reach the standard required for the test track. Fortunately, TfNSW includes a road section, with ready access to construction and maintenance contractors.

By the time all the necessary arrangements were in place, the work commenced in winter. This was not ideal given the cold conditions the region experiences. It regularly drops below freezing, and snow is not uncommon.

Despite this, the contractors achieved the very high standard required for the test track, including a constant maximum gradient of 1% along its 1,600m length, a maximum cross fall of 2%, and a coefficient of friction of 0.9%. Run-off hard shoulders were added along both sides, and a four-way intersection, and lanes marked using specific Australian lane markings.  

At the same time the existing terminal building was renovated and fitted out as a modern office, and three hangars were transformed into vehicle workshops. The new test facility was opened in October 2019 by the minister for rural roads, and commissioning tests commenced shortly after.

TfNSW purchased the site and began commercial testing in early 2020 and it is realising the potential it showed when we first viewed it in 2016. Buoyed by the facility’s immediate success, TfNSW has already expanded it, by adding a new intersection, and branded it as ‘The Future Mobility Testing and Research Centre’, but still with a focus on safety – link

Author: Dan Leavy PSMBSc(ENg)CEngMIEI