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Vehicle emissions standards are necessary, but much more is needed to stop transport systems harming our health

 Introduction by Croakey: Australia’s transport systems contribute to poor health in many ways, including through road trauma, encouraging physical inactivity, exacerbating social injustices, and air pollution, according to Dr Rosalie Schultz, a public health physician, road safety advocate, GP based in Alice Springs, and member of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

While Australia’s proposed new vehicle emissions standards are welcome, they are only part of a comprehensive transport strategy that should promote better public transport and support more active transport, she writes below.


Rosalie Schultz writes:

More Australians died in road crashes last year than in any year since 2016 with the road death toll reaching 1,266.

While the overall rates of road crash deaths per person, per vehicle and per kilometre travelled are declining, the number of road crash deaths has been steadily increasing since 2017 (except for 2020 and 2021), which is particularly concerning.

Every road crash death is a tragedy and we need to examine and learn how to stop road trauma. The declining road crash death rates reflect decades of success in reducing Australia’s road toll. However, the increasing road death toll indicates there are more vehicles on the roads and we are driving further.

Road crash deaths peaked at 3,798 in 1970, when our population was less than half what it is today. Thus our roads are six times safer than they were 50 years ago.

Our success in reducing road crash deaths reflects collaboration across governments, industry and communities, leading to compulsory seat belts, random breath-testing and speed cameras.

The recent increase in road deaths may be due to newer factors: use of mobile phones when driving, more heavy vehicles, SUVs and utes, and more people riding bikes.

While we rightly mourn the people who die in road crashes, our roads kill many more people, in ways not directly related to road deaths.

Physical inactivity

It’s estimated that 8,500 Australian deaths per year – six times more than road crash deaths – result from lack of physical activity.

More than half (56 percent) of Australians don’t do enough exercise and this contributes to cancer, heart disease, dementia, and diabetes: the main causes of disease and death in Australia.

With the right planning, transport could be an opportunity for physical activity.

Australian cities are built for cars, so beginning in childhood we learn that most travel is by car.

Transport habits we learn as children are major contributors to lifelong habits, despite travel by car being detrimental to physical, mental and social wellbeing from childhood.

Lack of exercise is part of Australia’s transport structure where travel by car is our primary means of travel, so few of us have enough time or capacity for exercise.

Sedentary travel is one of the major harms of our cars and roads.

Traffic pollution deaths

Around 11,000 Australians die each year from traffic related air pollution, nine times more than die from road crashes. They die from asthma and other respiratory diseases, from heart disease and from cancers. Unlike deaths from road crashes, deaths from traffic-related air pollution may not be linked to road travel.

Road traffic pollution has historically been overlooked in Australia, with a 2023 publication the first ever investigation. This new research shows the need to reduce pollution to protect health through changing our transport systems.

Like the people killed in road crashes, those killed through traffic-related air pollution are disproportionately poorer and disadvantaged. On average they have less formal education, lower incomes, are less likely to be employed and to own or drive a vehicle yet more likely to be killed. Our car dependent transport system contributes to social injustice.

Vehicle emissions standards

Doctors for the Environment Australia, along with many other organisations and individuals, has recently responded to Australia’s proposed new vehicle emissions standards. The preferred model will be released before the end of the year.

The Fuel Efficiency Standard has three key aims:

  1. improving vehicle efficiency, so we drive further per litre of fuel – ultimately in electric vehicles, which are more efficient and can use renewable energy. This will reduce both greenhouse and other pollution per kilometre
  2. the Standard will limit noxious emissions such as particulates and carbon monoxide which are traffic-related pollution
  3. and improve the quality of fuel and vehicles available to Australians.

The Standard will bring Australia into line with other industrialised nations, although full implementation is delayed until July 2028. Meanwhile, we remain a market for polluting vehicles that cannot be sold elsewhere.

However, improving vehicle emissions standards may leave the false impression that Australia is addressing the problems of our transport system, yet they will have no impact on our car-dependency. The new Fuel Efficiency Standard is based on average emissions for vehicles from each manufacturer, so expensive, inefficient cars may remain the norm for those who can afford them.

Furthermore, if fuel efficiency reduces the costs of driving, we may see a rebound increase in driving, less active travel, and more road crash deaths.

More vehicles on our roads, regardless of emissions, will lead to greater congestion which will slow traffic and reduce opportunities for physical activity.

Electric vehicles – while they have no tailpipe emissions – are heavier than those powered by petrol and diesel and this partly counteracts reductions in particulate emissions that are a benefit of electric vehicles. Electrification of private vehicles does not reduce crashes, and may worsen outcomes where pedestrians or cyclists are involved.

Wider focus

Emissions standards are needed for Australia to catch up with other nations. But they are only part of the comprehensive transport strategy we need so we can travel where we need, quickly and safely, without polluting the air, congesting the roads or risking our lives.

Better transport systems built around decent public transport can reduce road crashes and deaths, by enabling people to get where they need to go with less driving. Better public transport and more active transport will also reduce deaths from traffic related air pollution.

Decent public transport supports regular exercise because active travel such as walking and cycling can provide access to buses and trains.

Vibrant public transport encourages walking and cycling because it leads to fewer cars that threaten cyclist and walker safety. If there’s parkland along the way and we can exercise in nature, this is even better for our health.

About the author

Dr Rosalie Schultz is a public health physician, a road safety advocate, a GP based in Alice Springs, and a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

Schultz has been a road safety advocate since 2013 when she tried in vain to prevent the NT Country Liberal Party (CLP) government removing speed limits on NT’s fastest roads. Limits (still too fast at 130km/h) were re-introduced promptly by the new ALP Government in 2016, and now even the CLP has accepted these.

Further reading

Climate Council report, 2023: Shifting Gear: The path to cleaner transport

From X/Twitter


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