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What more can we do to reduce the road toll?

In the wake of some terrible road smashes during the holiday season (for example, this and this one), Croakey has been wondering about what might be done to improve road safety and reduce the toll.

I had a quick browse in various places – looking for some sort of national resource that sets out evidence-based recommendations for road safety interventions, together with an overview of how widely or well these have been implemented in the various jurisdictions.

But I haven’t been able to find such a thing, and would appreciate any tips from Croakey readers.

Meanwhile, here, briefly, is where my travels have taken me thus far…

First stop was the Community Guide in the US, which I like because it explicitly sets out the levels of evidence for various interventions. Its section on motor vehicle injury prevention has a series of recommendations around the use of seat belts, child seat belts and alcohol-impaired driving.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also had some useful fact sheets, such as this one about young drivers and related interventions.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also has some useful info.

The downside is that many of these resources are very US-specific and not particularly relevant to the Australian context. It seems quite amazing, for example, that about one-third of motorcycle riders in the US do not wear helmets. Still, it’s an improvement from 2005, when about half did not.

Meanwhile, in WA, the Office of Road Safety has published a road safety strategy for 2008-2020, which suggests, amongst other things, that the community is not ready for the sort of speed restrictions which could prevent thousands of deaths and injuries for a relatively low cost.

The NSW Centre for Road Safety, which began operations in 2008, says its job is to “change cultural values on road safety in NSW” and that its first mission is to convince drivers that speeding is socially unacceptable.

And here is the NSW Government’s response to recommendations arising from a Road Safety Roundtable held last year, but I’m not sure how useful this document is. It gives no sense of the priority, relative value or cost-effectiveness of the options canvassed.

At a national level, the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government links to various reports and publications, including the National Road Safety Strategy, which expires this year.

The Department notes that the news is not all bad: “…road trauma levels have declined dramatically over the last four decades, despite substantial population growth and a threefold increase in registered motor vehicles. Between 1970 and 2008, the nation’s annual road fatality rate declined from 30.4 to 6.8 deaths per 100,000 people.”

However, this is not the full story, as the most recent national publication makes clear (released in December). These graphs show there has been a recent upwards blip in the overall downward trend, especially in NSW, SA and Tasmania.

Note the recent blip in the overall downward trend
Note the recent blip in the overall downward trend
Trends across the states
Trends across the states

So I’m a little bit wiser but not much.

Can anyone help answer the original questions: what are some evidence-based suggestions for improving road safety and reducing the toll? And are these being adequately and effectively implemented across the various jurisdictions?

Comments 15

  1. Peter Kelley says:

    I think that on the whole the road toll statistics are a disgraceful use of bad science and mathematics not balanced with the impact on road users. Road toll statistics should be reported against the number of kilometres travelled.

    To illustrate this point, to reduce the road toll dramatically simply set all speed limits at 0 kilometres per hour, problem solved.

  2. Bogdanovist says:

    There must be a ‘sweet spot’ balancing speed and fatigue when it comes to long haul, duel-carriageway highways like the Hume Highway. I’m not convinced the 110 Km/h is that sweet spot, or that a lower speed will naturally lead to less fatalities. In suburban streets on the other hand, 50 Km/h or even slower is fine and appropriate.

    Simple changes in driver behaviour could have great benefit. It’s not just about the reckless drivers either. Those who sit in the right or middle lanes on multi-lane highways doing at or under the limit need to be educated that this is a dangerous practice (for instance). Not all poor and dangerous driver behaviour is about people being hoons.

    I’d be in favour of regular (say every 5 or 10 years) manditory re-testing of driver competance, such as we do now for those over a certain age (I think it’s 85?). I know that once I learned to drive I was a lot safer than when my parents, who learned to drive on cars much different to todays and hence has a lot of bad habits, would drive me around.

  3. Doctor Whom says:

    I’m logged in on the squizzy netbook but the trend is right on target. The downward blip in 07/08 is the aberration.

    Anyway raw numbers of deaths aren’t as useful as deaths per 1,000. Remember our total popn. and car drivers is growing. Deaths are declining. I haven’t looked at international comparisons but i’d guess we might be close to world’s best practice per 1,000 or 1,000ks.

  4. RonDunn says:

    Nothing. Live with it.

    We’re already terribly over-nannied when it comes to road “safety” regulations. Look at the latest madness regarding child seats – rules which are impossible to comply with for many families, and which are totally unnecessary when measured on any economic basis.

    Peter Kelley’s comment on the abuse of statistics is absolutely correct. Measure the road toll against kilometers travelled, or total petrol consumed, and you’ll get a much more accurate measure of what is really happening.

    Also, count numbers of incidents, not numbers of people involved. A two car collision which kills seven people is a personal tragedy, but one very quick way to lower the road toll under current measurement is to ban all cars from carrying more than one person … that way, the most severe accident between two cars could only ever kill a maximum of two people.

    Finally, calls to lower speed limits, particularly in suburban areas, are total lunacy. During the silly season break I heard a nutter from a NSW university – claiming to be a centre of excellence or similar – suggest that highway speeds should be reduced to 60km/hr or lower! I wonder if those calling for slower speeds have ever actually tried driving at them … try a modern car, for example, and see how you have to ride the brakes to move at a constant speed such as 40km/hr, it can’t be done without unnatural and unhealthy driving practices.

    The solution to suburban / pedestrian incidents is to manage the pedestrian, not the driver.

  5. Scott says:

    I think its important to have good data to support this sort of stuff. Victoria is ahead of NSW in this regard. Check out their crash database at http://www.tac.vic.gov.au/jsp/statistics/reportingtool.do?areaID=23&tierID=1&navID=7&globalNavID=7. You can actually find some good stats in regards to fatalities; accident type/age of person/hour of the day/whether it was rural or city etc.
    A large percentage of the fatalities in VIC appear to involve running off a straight road (33%). A large percentage involve people over 70 (15% of fatalities). Speed, drink driving, fatigue and age are probably the four factors to work on.

  6. Shannon Mackay, RTA says:

    The RTA has a number of programs in place to help reduce the road toll, with the aim being to improve driver education and awareness about the consequences of speeding.

    The current initiative, the Slow Down Pledge, is a Facebook campaign (www.slowdownpledge.com.au) to effect change in young driver behaviour by encouraging them to officially take a pledge to slow down on the roads.

    Since its launch in December last year, nearly 1,300 young drivers aged 18-25 have shown their support of the campaign.

    Next month, the RTA will be rolling out a year-long schools and TAFE Roadshow, which will see RTA SpeedBlitz Blues cricket players visiting high schools around NSW to remind young drivers that speeding kills. Since the program was launched, the cricketers have visited 180 schools and spoken to more than 32,000 students.

    The RTA also hosts a Road Safety Roundtable, which involves a number of government partners including the Minister for Roads & Transport, NSW Police and University Professors, to develop safety strategies in the aim of reducing the number of fatalities.

    Ultimately, it is a driver’s responsibility to adopt good driving behaviour and the RTA will continue to encourage this.

  7. chinda63 says:

    I recently sought some information from the Minister’s office in SA and got some very interesting statistics on motor vehicle accidents over here.

    The most obvious is that the majority of fatality accidents involve three main issues: inattention (49% of all accidents), people driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol (38% of all accidents – 85% of these involved people at least 3 to 4 times over the limit and almost all were men); and fatigue (16% of accidents).

    The figures add up to over 100% because some accidents obviously have more than one cause. In every case regardless, speed is mentioned as a factor; even if the driver was not technically exceeding the speed limit speed is, by its very nature, a risk factor. The problem is that this tends to muddy the waters.

    Accidents involving *excessive speed* – defined as deliberate behaviour involving travelling well above the speed limit – were actually not common at all; only 9 of 99 fatalities on SA roads in 2008 were as a result of deliberate, excessive speed. That statistic hardly supports the contention by governments everywhere that we have to spend megabucks on speed detection devices because they save lives.

    Part of the problem with the excessive use of speed cameras is that this creates an inattention problem in itself; people constantly taking their eyes off the road to check their speedometers! I suspect this will become more of a problem as governments across Australia lower the “tolerances” before issuing speeding fines. Already we are hearing anecdotally that people are becoming paranoid about speeding and, as such, are finding driving a more stressful experience; hardly a good thing if we want our drivers to be on top of their game when they are behind the wheel.

    I like the suggestion also that we need to regularly retrain as drivers. Just because you took a driving test 40 years ago doesn’t mean you are a great driver; in fact, often the reverse is true. The number of people who fail to indicate, fail to give way (especially on fast country roads) and have NO IDEA how to use a roundabout is truly staggering. Maybe if they had to be regularly retested it might improve both their driving skills and knowledge of the road rules.

    Even if it only saves a handful of lives a year, surely it’s worth it.

  8. Doctor Whom says:

    Scott- there is a reasonable case to be made that single occupant cars running off a straight road are intentional suicide. (maybe thats a redundancy – all suicides are intentional?)

    Therefore following that its not a road safety issue as such. Perhaps.

  9. Croakey says:

    Re Scott’s comment – is there any area where Vic does not leave NSW for dead? I’m not being facetious, but genuinely curious. I so often hear that Vic does better than NSW in many areas of health, for eg. What is it about Vic? Maybe it’s easier to answer the question: what is wrong with NSW…

  10. Croakey says:

    Have just found a recent relevant editorial and study from the BMJ on speed and road safety:

    BMJ 2009;339:b4743
    Editorials
    Traffic speed zones and road injuries
    by Shanthi Ameratunga, associate professor of epidemiology, School of Population Health, University of Auckland.

    And
    BMJ 2009;339:b4469
    Research
    Effect of 20 mph traffic speed zones on road injuries in London, 1986-2006: controlled interrupted time series analysis

  11. Frank Campbell says:

    hey, why no mention of the one known road-death scandal? Trucks. If I recall a survey last year correctly, big trucks make up 2% of all vehicles but are involved in 22% of fatalities. We know from endless surveys that trucking companies push their drivers too hard, that owner-drivers are worse…I remember one survey saying 80% of all long-haul drivers took drugs to stay awake…overloading is common, maintenance often poor. Public policy could make a difference here…

  12. Peter Kelley says:

    I know that the crash statistics collected by the NSW RTA are more detailed than the list of criteria exposed in the Victorian data referred to by Scott. Hopefully the RTA can look at a similar site exposing crash information to the public.

  13. Fool says:

    If you want to actually compare policy and road rule changes, to how they effect the road toll; you just need to get the dates of implementation for the new rules and then compare it with the number of deaths (Peter Kelly and Doctor Whom have given the correct way to measure statistical data relating to road crashes and death toll).
    Good Luck.

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