Would you rather be seriously injured, or dead?

I spent half of last week at the 2014 Australasian Road Safety Research, Policing and Education Conference, which is the annual gathering of those who think that road safety is kind of important. To give a comparative perspective, think of the numbers of people in Australia who will be killed or injured by climate change this year. The numbers aren’t quite in yet, of course, but my estimate for 2014 will be 0 killed and o seriously injured.

On the Australian roads? Well, the numbers aren’t in either, and there is always a little doubt and uncertainty about them anyway, for a variety of reasons. But a decent guess will be about 1,500 dead and maybe 34,000 injured. Want to try cost to the community? On the whole, the slight warming that has been experienced over the last half century seems to have a good thing, with increased food production and the greening of some arid areas. Deaths and injuries on the Australian roads, however, are estimated to cost many billions of dollars — $27 billion, according to the Australian government — more than the Australian defence budget.

Given all this, and given that the people who went to the Conference are the cream of those who try to work out what should be done about the issue, you’d expect serious coverage from the media, wouldn’t you. There wasn’t any: no TV, radio or press, as far as anyone could see. Well, you say, there’d be some political presence. Actually, no. The Conference was in Melbourne, and no one came from the Victorian Government or Opposition. The Governor-General was there, and handed out awards. But any of his Ministers? No, not one. No one from the Labor Opposition either. There aren’t any votes in road safety at the moment.

People in road safety are used to it. No one wants to know. We the electorate seem to expect that Death exacts a tax on those who use the roads. We call it the ‘road toll’, and while there is quick fury about what happens when another death occurs at what locals call a ‘black spot’, and governments duck for cover before promising  quick action,  we all know that nothing much will happen, and hope that the next tragedy does not involve us.

There’s some good news. Deaths are coming down, in absolute and relative terms. The roads used to kill 30 Australians per 100,00. That was 1970. Today the figure is around 6 per 100,000. Had the ratio remained at the 1970 level, then this year’s road deaths would total around 7,200 rather than 1,500. That’s better, surely. But each of the 1,500 deaths could have been prevented. What other event in Australia produces mortality statistics like this without real comment? If we were losing 1,500 soldiers a year in Afghanistan there would be political trouble every day. We will lose around 50 cyclists this year, and that statistic is likely to climb as more people adopt bicycles as their mode of transport. Did you think there would be so many?

More bad news: serious injury numbers are climbing. Part of it is a trade-off. People who once were found dead, or died on their to hospital, are now surviving. But some of them have a low future quality of life, with what we call ‘acquired brain injury’, or paraplegia, or other life-reducing conditions. The care of a young person injured like this is astonishingly expensive over his or her life. Hence the question that is the title of this essay. Those in the crashes aren’t asked that question; what happens to them is what happens.

Road safety is in every government’s too-hard basket. There is no political leadership in this domain, none at all. We are trying to employ what is called a ‘safe systems’ approach, but there never was a system. Cars appeared on roads, and in time displaced the horse and cart. Our roads grew longer and wider, and carry more vehicles. But there is no ‘system’ in this, let alone a safe one, and imposing one after the event is fraught with difficulties of every kind.

Speeds need to come down if pedestrians and cyclists are to survive. Every move to do this is beset with opposition. Cars that recognise one another, and adapt the car’s speed to the new condition, over-riding the driver’s intentions if that will prevent a crash, will be part of the future. But mandating the new technologies will be difficult. Governments could rule that no new car can be sold in Australia that does not meet the ANCAP 5-star rating. That would save some more lives. But no government will have the nerve to do it. Too much opposition. What are the battlers going to do if there are no cheap cars?

What can be done? In my mind, road safety needs to develop local constituencies in the manner of the groups that have arisen around medical conditions like SIDS, breast cancer, cerebral palsy and the like. Their role is to build community support for desired changes, like 40 kph speeds in shopping precincts, enlist the local politicians, and build networks. The most effective changes to the death rate have come from changes to regulation, like the introduction of seat-belts and random breath tests. Ultimately government has to act, but it won’t do that without strong community insistence, and even then it will be slow to respond.

It will take time to accomplish anything, but it has to start locally. In the meantime, drive with the realisation that every day four or five people will die on our roads, and that several hundred will be seriously injured. To avoid being a new statistic, expect that bad things can happen without much warning, drive a bit more slowly than the average, and keep cool. There is a lot of aggression out there, too.


Join the discussion 37 Comments

  • JMO says:

    When motor vehicles started to appear on roads in 1890’s,
    there were flag wavers walking in front of them, to warn pedestrians a motor
    vehicle was coming -chugging along at walking pace. The motoring world has
    moved on, and millions of road deaths worldwide followed. Even if we
    reduce the national speed limit to 40 kph, the sad fact is there will still be
    deaths -a motor vehicle travelling at that turtle pace can still kill
    a pedestrian, and its driver and passengers if it hits a brick wall or rolls
    over a cliff. Of course no government will legislate such a speed limit
    or lower.

    It’s encouraging there are far fewer deaths per 100,000 than in the 1970’s Manufacturerengineering and technology have come to the party; it took a while! (I shudder the death traps people used to drive in Australia) and it’s a
    slow process for road improvements to save lives. For example look at the
    Barton Highway – it was the most dangerous highway per km in Australia- it took
    decades before any improvements. Another example is the Kings Hwy to the

    I am not one for hypothecated taxes, however on this issue I would advocate
    more of our fuel taxes and road charges, if not all, to be directed to road maintenance and improvement.

    • Gus says:

      “>>> The motoring world has moved on, and millions of road deaths worldwide followed. <<<"

      There were road accidents before that time too. Pierre Curie was killed by a horse-drawn cart, which ran over him.

      • Mike says:

        Yes one of my relatives died from being run over by a horse and dray. At Bargo New South Wales in the late 1800s. It wasn’t recorded what speed it was travelling at but I think alcohol was involved.

      • DaveW says:

        Actually, there were probably a number of deaths from simply being around horses from kicking etc. I wonder what the stats for deaths associated with horses were in the ‘good, old days’?

  • Gus says:

    Yes, road safety: the point well made.

    What can be done? Build freeways where possible, for starters. Freeways are safer, because they separate traffic. To the best of my knowledge, though I may be out of date on this, there is still not a single freeway connecting two state capitals in Australia, is there?

    The freeways, once developed, can be marked with fluorescent signs so that night driving gets easier. See this video for more in this:

    Then we have cars themselves. The 2015 Kia Sedona, for example, offers traction control, cornering break control, hill start assist, air bags and air curtains all around the cabin, blind spot alert, lane departure alert, radar-adjustable cruise control, rear cross-traffic alert, forward collision warning, also surround view–yes, it’s got cameras on all sides. In the US, some of these are available on the most expensive SX Limited version only. But they are all extremely useful in making driving safer, and, one can hope, with time, will become available on cheaper models too.

    Down the road, we should expect self-driving vehicles. Already now, some can park themselves in tight spots. But this is still Sy-Fy, and there is a thorny problem of legal responsibility in case of an accident.

    Why aren’t the media and the governments more interested in this? After all, in countries like Australia and the US, everybody has to drive. So, everybody is vulnerable. Well, there’s no catastrophe element to this, no asteroid to hit Earth, no super-volcano eruption, no extinction of life on Earth as we know it due to Man’s evil. Environmentalists don’t want us to drive at all, full stop. They want us to give up mobility and freedom that comes with it, embrace public transport and bicycles instead. So, you might say, they actually want people to die on the roads. For them, cars and roads, it all reeks of oil industry entrapment, CO2 and other pollution.

    Governments don’t want to talk about this, because the issue reflects on them badly. After all, roads and car safety requirements are their responsibility. So, if people die on the roads, it’s their, the governments’ fault. At least, partly. Road building is very expensive and it’s a lot of trouble if you have to buy land. For the opposition, it is very much the same: roads don’t build themselves in a year. Before they were the opposition, they used to be in the government themselves, and so, the responsibility for roads and car safety requirements is as much theirs as it is the governments’.

    In summary, roads and car safety requirements are real tangible deliverables, which the citizens rightly expect their representatives, both those in the government and in the opposition to address. There is little overseas travel involved, little glamor, no great international gatherings and treaties, no saving of humanity from itself… just hard work, organization, administration and proper management of money to pay for the roads.

    Now, this is really hard. It’s something few politicians would know how to do.

    • Mike says:

      Things have moved on Gus these days there is a dual lane highway from Sydney to Melbourne. Also there is a dual lane highway from Canberra through to Goulburn. They have speed limits of 110 km/h. These roads compared to UK are generally empty where the speed limits are nominally 113 km/h. In Australia most obey the limit a good reason is because there are few cars and radar is used to pick you up and fine you. This is an important source of revenue by the way. In the UK I presume because of the amount of traffic this is harder to do. Driving there I found most were driving nearer 140 km/h. Their road death rate when I was there in 2001 was a bit under ours.

  • David says:

    Well since you ask, one solution might be a
    carbon tax. This would provide an incentive for people to move from private to public
    transport, which as you would save lives.

    • Aert Driessen says:

      I don’t mind paying tax for services that I might use. But why should I pay a tax on charcoal, graphite, or diamond which are all carbon. But I suspect that you mean carbon dioxide which is as different from carbon as hydrogen is from water. If you want want to drive reform, please use precise language. As for CO2, it is beneficial for the planet. People should be paid for emitting it rather than taxed.

      • PeterE says:

        Yes. Better tell the US guy that. He’s agin ‘carbon’.

      • David says:

        My suggestion re a carbon tax was tongue in cheek. But don’t be alarmed I have not really put my tongue in my cheek, that’s an idiom, too.

      • Mike says:

        I agree entirely except we don’t need to pay for emissions of CO2. Currently at 400 ppm everyone is going to see that it goes beyond that. Particularly the Chinese and the Indians good of them is it not? This morning I was on Skype talking to a young woman in Toronto. She is saying winter is a month early and she is fed up with snow. As she puts it we are being badly affected by global warming! You can’t make this stuff up has the world gone mad?

        • David says:

          Well if a “young woman in Toronto” says so, that’s good enough for me.

          • Mike says:

            Thanks David you make the point the world truly has gone mad so if we get global cooling as we may does that mean things will get warmer? Next thing you’ll be telling me is wet roads cause rain, lightbulbs suck the darkness out of the air, electric wires contain smoke. Come on admit it you’re not anti CO2 your anti civilisation.

    • Gus says:

      We’re paying taxes enough as it is. How about our politicians and administrators making better use of the bags of money they extort from us already, and building better roads instead of squandering our tax payers money on “conferences” in Las Vegas.

  • kvd says:

    Why is this anything which either could or should be ‘solved’ by government? And what actual ‘cost’ is involved where the ‘costs’ are totally borne by Australians? Tragic as the effects on individuals are, they are completely contained within our economy, within our nation. I can’t see how you can quote a throwaway $27 billion ‘cost’, yet ignore the fact that the same figure must (if it means anything at all) be contributing to the revenue budgets of hospitals and care facilities.

    • Gus says:

      It is the government that is charged with building roads. It is also the government that issues car safety regulations.

      • David says:

        I agree with Gus.

      • kvd says:

        Gus, I am not suggesting that past efforts at improved safety have been anything less than spectacular, but surely there comes a point when the increase of either regulation or expenditure must be balanced against the likely gain? To move the death and accident rate downwards yet further, while a noble ideal, has to be balanced against other competing priorities, surely? Mike notes above the impact of suicides; what about Aboriginal life expectancy or disadvantage? Where do you spend the limited money for most/more benefit is my point. This sets aside my natural cynicism that what we need is yet more government regulation; you want freeways between capital cities? Why don’t you push for existing roadways to be one way? Up to Brisbane via the Pacific, down to Sydney via the New England. That makes as much sense, at far less cost, as anything else ‘the government’ might regulate.

        • Gus says:

          “>>> surely there comes a point when the increase of either regulation or expenditure must be balanced against the likely gain? <<<"

          I'd say, tens of thousands of lives saved is gain enough, to balance even very considerable expenditures. And it's not only lives. Medical expenses resulting from accidents and recuperation can be exorbitant for individuals involved, insurance companies and the society too.

          One of the things you discover, when you move to the US, also to Europe, are freeways. You can get pretty much everywhere on a freeway. The network is most comprehensive. The US freeway system, it's called interstates over here, was a part of the US defense infrastructure and budgeted as such by the Eisenhower administration. I don't know how they fund them in Europe, but they are even better over there–well, this goes back all the way to Adolf H., you see, that's also where Eisenhower saw them and understood their importance.

          They not only connect cities at their far ends, but everything in between, thus creating development corridors. So, they pay for themselves, in time, by stimulating growth. Money spent on freeways is money invested.

          Car safety regulations: good investment too. Someone has to produce the devices that improve safety: safety belts, air bags, cameras, radars, electronic control systems, self-driving systems in the future. It's jobs, jobs, jobs–in design, manufacture, distribution, installation and maintenance; jobs and … profits, of course, for those who are involved.

          Australia lost her automotive industry. There was never good enough reason for it, and even less nowadays, because it's cheaper to ship cars produced in China, Japan, Korea and Indonesia, than to produce them in Australia for a market that is this small. But Australia can produce automotive components: control systems that go into car safety. So by regulating that all new vehicles must be equipped in such, the government can stimulate their development and production, and save lives at the same time.

          • kvd says:

            Gus, not disputing that we ‘could’ do something; more just asking if it’s worth it given competing priorities. Anyway, on your latest point, have a look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_traffic-related_death_rate particularly for the two countries you mention. By population, and by number of vehicles and by 1bn kms travelled our record of fatalities is so much better than the US – and within ‘1 per’ of Germany’s.

            I don’t like using stats I don’t fully understand, but the contrast with the US in particular does not seem to support your view, and Germany’s improved result is relatively minor, I would suggest. Happy to accept correction if I’m reading the tables incorrectly.

          • Gus says:

            Americans drive more than Australians. In Australia, people wouldn’t normally drive very long distances between cities, e.g., from Sydney to Adelaide, or from Adelaide to Perth. Well, some do, but it’s rather uncommon. In the US, it’s very common, not in the least because the freeways are here. I myself have driven all around the country, north-to-south and east-to-west, the continental US being about the size of Australia. Freeways will get you everywhere and there are motels to stop for the night everywhere too.

            Now, when you look at the table, look at column 4, “road fatalities per billion vehicle * km.” You’ll notice that here the number for Australia, 5.2, is not so very different from the number for the US, 7.6. Germany in this column is 4.9, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, the safety loving Scandinavians with very good roads, all less than 4.0; crazy Brazilians, who drive like maniacs, their country being larger than Australia, score 55.9 in this column.

            The other factor is that there is good public transport in all Australian cities, the cities themselves are relatively compact, at least compared to American cities, and a vast majority of Australians, more than 90%, live in them. In the US, the population is more spread around the country. People and companies tend to run away from cities, often into far away suburbs or into country towns altogether, where public transport is often non-existent. So people have to drive more on this account too.

            The freeways, although everywhere, are in poor condition. They were built quickly and cheaply, and it shows now, 50 years later.

          • Mike says:

            “Americans drive more than Australians” do you have figures on this was it anecdotal? Personally I drive quite a bit with relatives in Melbourne, Bendigo, Parkes, Sydney, and Adelaide. Last year in a period of 6 weeks I drove from Canberra to Perth it’s about 10,000 km. On the trip there were many people that were from all over Australia mostly touring. We have a thing here we call grey nomads who are on the road permanently. Others like my neighbour has a home base here but tours the whole country he has driven to Perth several times also the Northern Territory. These sorts of travelling doesn’t make much sense unless you are touring. It is simpler and cheaper to fly and hire a car.

            I think Gus you better come back to Australia how long have you been away? Things have changed a great deal in the last 10 or 20 years.

          • kvd says:

            I agree with Mike 🙂

          • kvd says:

            Plus, also, and another thing, Gus you fail to address my basic point of competing priorities, and you fail to address the inconsistency in even the stats you quote. You do realise that Germany, for all its super freeways has a fatality rate of 0.3 of one person per billion k’s travelled? And the US is worse.

            I gives up 🙂

          • kvd says:

            re Germany and 0.3 of one person: I meant ‘0.3 better than Aus stats. Apologies.

          • DaveW says:

            Long distances are a problem that the US and Australia (but not Germany) share, but demographically the US and Australia are very different. Also, the US has quite a different range in climates than Oz. We don’t do much driving on ice here. So, relying on these simple summary stats is probably not informative. I think we need a better breakdown on who is crashing and dying and when to understand the situation better. My experience is that US roads are much better than Australian roads, but also have more crazies and a lot more ice and snow.

          • Mike says:

            When I was looking the ATSB would annually publish a report on how we stood in the world on this issue. The populous states New South Wales and Victoria fared well. Other states such as Queensland, Western Australia, and South Australia less so. The Northern Territory was very much disproportionally represented but the ACT where I live showed to be probably the safest place in the world yes there are reasons for that. Vast areas with small populations means bad roads really there is no cure for it I don’t know why it is even being written about here. A lot of road safety gets down to the nut that holds the wheel. For instance driving after dusk and around dawn across the Nullarbor is very dangerous unless you are driving a road train. My reaction was to only drive in daylight hours. We have focused here on drivers of trucks and cars. A large amount of the deaths are pedestrian and motorcycles with some cyclists. Motorcyclists represented 14% of the deaths and are nowhere near 14% of traffic.

          • Gus says:

            Indeed. Winter in the US can reach, at times, all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico. When this happens, the southern capitals, which are poorly prepared for such events, get paralyzed. The disaster in Atlanta, this past winter, is an example.

          • Gus says:

            See, for example,


            You’ll find Americans to drive more than anybody else in the table, which, admittedly, does not include Australia.
            I’ve been 17 years in the US now, which is a long time, I agree. One thing, I know, is that real estate prices in Australia have skyrocketed in this time.

  • Mike says:

    Don you say “No one wants to know” and you are surprised at this. I think somewhere in there you ask if not imply this is unusual that they should be so little interest. Okay there is something that people die from mainly males which are deliberate deaths not disease but other causes. Over the past 5 years the number of deaths per annum on average was 2415. In 2012 1901 males that is 16.8 per hundred thousand and 634 females 5.9 per hundred thousand died from it. Have we seen any headlines which are typical in the media around the holiday season that talk about this “carnage”. Usually there is nary a word. I think the road safety people have created a dead end for themselves. Their success at reducing the number of deaths and injuries on the road over the years has been remarkable but they can’t congratulate themselves. If they do guess what is going to happen to funding? I was very interested in this subject about 10 years ago and used to examine in detail reports from the ATSB. At that time the annual death rate was about 1700 so the death rate is actually going down. The hysteria at holiday time when you examine the figures was about the safest time to drive because certainly the rate was lower then. Canberra by the way is probably the safest place to drive a car in the whole world if you look at the statistics. By the way at the time I was looking at it the states would not collect data on injuries so I’m surprised that you have any figures on injuries. The only interest was those spending more than a day in hospital.

    Okay what’s this other thing I mentioned which is nearly double the death rate on the roads. At one time if you died from this you would be buried in an unmarked grave. Find out what it is go and have a look at this http://www.mindframe-media.info/for-media/reporting-suicide/facts-and-stats

    Yes suicide it kills far more people than the roads. More than that there is a distinct possibility that quite a few of the deaths on the roads are suicide. I got fed up with the road safety lobby which does not want to know what else people may be dying from. I personally know 2 males who suicided I know no one who has died on the road. I suspect that there are many other things that people die from other than disease or old age. Industrial accidents are very large.

    • Mike says:

      So there you go Don yourself and none of the contributors to this blog are interested in the carnage in our homes or elsewhere. Suicide is just too sensitive subject but as I said there are other preventable causes of death that there is not much interest in. To be cynical about it money can be made out of road deaths it provides employment it provides revenue as an excuse for fines. The publicity gives examples of people exceeding the speed limit by a large margin and then our government merrily fines large numbers of drivers who have exceeded the speed limit by between 5 and 10 K. There was a case in a suburb of Canberra some years ago where a young car salesman wiped himself out, his girlfriend, an older woman in another car and her son. The magistrate summing up the inquest said there were just not enough signs in the area. They estimated the driver was doing 150 km/h it’s all a hypocritical joke!

  • DaveW says:

    Hi Don,
    I think to properly evaluate your claims, you need to provide a better breakdown on the demographics of mortality and morbidity. There is at least some data (I’ve read it, but not tried to analyse it) that indicates that speed limits tend to be set too low in terms of overall safety and that driving the speed limit or slower may be almost as dangerous (to other drivers anyway) as speeding. Mike has made the point that some of our highway deaths are probably suicides, and as I understand it, also many are more to do with fatigue than speeding per se. Young and inexperienced drivers are much more likely to do something stupid and real ‘accidents’ occur everywhere in life, not just on roads. Crosswalks tend to be the most dangerous place to cross the street for pedestrians and bicyclists are not necessarily good road companions. I don’t think you can legislate stupidity, arrogance and carelessness out of existence.

    When I first started driving on Australian roads 25 years ago, I found them terrifying: narrow, with poor shoulders and innumerable potholes, few over-taking lanes, filled with giant overloaded trucks that just barely fit their lanes and narrow bridges where is was sometimes impossible for two trucks to pass each other without damage. Railroad crossings and sharp bends rarely had adequate warning and stop signs were as rare as honest politicians. Things have definitely improved since then, but I still find the Bruce Highway in many spots about as unsafe a high speed roadway as one could imagine. I think we could do much better with our roads, but I agree that the lack of media interest in road safety is depressing.

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