A new way of talking about death on the roads

Those of us who work in the road safety field all suffer from a frustration at the continuing occurrence of death and serious injury on the roads. The media refer to it as ‘the road toll’, as though it is the kind of human tax we have to expect to pay for our cars and motor cycles. It is a human tragedy for the families involved, but it is just another statistic for most.

Do you know what ‘the toll’ is, in weekly terms? Well, we are talking of 25 dead and 600 seriously injured. My friends in the Australasian College of Road Safety have been playing around with different ways of presenting those numbers to see how the community might respond.

Here’s an example. What if Australian soldiers were being killed overseas at the rate of 25 men per week, plus 600 seriously injured — week after week — and that this had gone on for years, and no end were in sight? Surely there would be a public outcry. Stop the war! End the casualties!

What if, to take another example, there were a continuing series of crashes, five a week, involving airline passenger jets, with 33,900 people either being killed or seriously injured over the year? Surely the public outcry would be enormous. Take planes out of the air until we’ve found out why they keep crashing!

What if, to focus on just one group, there were some kind of epidemic which consistently, year after year, was the leading cause of casualty from babies up to 44-year-olds? And it was the leading  cause of death and injury to our young people, those from 15 to 24. Surely we would mobilise every weapon we had to cure this epidemic. Our hospitals and community services would be under immense strain, with 600 people a week requiring extensive support, some of them for life.

Perhaps it is the money that really worries you. The annual cost of those imagined  plane crashes, epidemics or wartime events comes to more than $27 billion. That is the estimate of the Department of Infrastructure and Transport in the National Road Safety Strategy 2011-2020. It is a bit more than the annual expenditure of the Department of Defence, at around $26 billion. How do we pay for anything like this? Well, it represents about a tenth of our entire export income, year after year. If our export income declines, then the proportion that has to be devoted to all these deaths and injuries goes up.

This is the road trauma reality: 25 people dead and 600 seriously injured every week. Week after week. Year after year. What can we do about it? That is the frustration. Things are much better than they once were. Since 1970 the annual death rate on Australian roads has declined from around 30 per 100,000 to around 6 per 100,000, but of course in that time the population has doubled and the number of vehicles on our roads has multiplied several times.

What has caused the reduction? We can’t be absolutely sure, but the leading contenders are much safer cars, the almost universal use of seatbelts, random breath-testing, and better-engineered roads. But the change from year to year is agonisingly slow, and young people are still the ones most likely to die and suffer serious injury, despite all the years of work in educating them about the reality of driving.

Every crash, every death, every injury has a cause. We know, or we are close to knowing, what the cause probably was in most cases, and all the jurisdictions in Australia are moving to a version of what in Sweden is called ‘Vision Zero’ — the aspiration to end deaths and serious injury on the roads by ensuring that we deal with the causes. But nothing is straightforward in this. You can greatly reduce head-on crashes, for example, by putting steel hawsers down the centre of roads, and reduce the chance of vehicles’ leaving the roads by placing the hawsers on the edge. But motorcyclists fear these safety measures, and you can understand why.

There has been a great amount of re-engineering on Australia’s roads in the past fifty years, and that will continue. Today’s cars, especially those with a 5-star ANCAP rating, are very much safer than the cars I drove in the 1950s and 1960s. And we — well, most of us — know that we shouldn’t drink and drive, a tenet that was hardly known, and in any case widely disregarded, back then.

But, to go back to the beginning, the current statistics on deaths and injuries on the roads are frightening, destructive of family happiness, and grotesquely expensive. Yet for so many, crashes happen to other people, not to themselves. Their own needs, desires and pressures override safety considerations.

And we all make mistakes, about which I have written in the past. The Vision Zero approach is to ensure that the whole road system is relatively forgiving of errors. But our culture of speed (we are all time-poor) gets in the way. If you care about road safety, as I do, it is all so frustrating — and that’s where I began.

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Malcolm says:

    Did you write this, Don? There are so many typos that I am surprised.

  • Don Aitkin says:

    I think I replied to you rather than made a comment, but my wife had pointed out one, and I then discovered three more, all of which I fixed. It was haste that was my undoing. I do proof-read each post at east twice, the last time when it has been published, and I always find errors.

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