Road deaths are rising — understanding why requires better, faster data

Recent road tragedies have focused more attention on an issue that has been becoming apparent for some time — Australia’s long history of a diminishing road toll has gone into reverse.

In the most recent data from the Bureau of Infrastructure and Transport Research Economics, deaths in the year to November were up 6.3% on the year to November 2022. That was on top of a 5% increase from 2021.

The Australian Automobile Association has long been calling for much better sharing of important road accident data by the states and territories, a call backed by the Australian Medical Association. A recent meeting of federal and state transport ministers deferred action on the issue into next year.

Data on the nature, location, timing and victims of crashes is crucial to curbing the road toll. Knowing how many are attributable to poor infrastructure, conditions and driver behaviour — and how the three combine — enables policymakers to know where to focus.

It also puts things in context. For example, the road toll has increased this year, but so has the population. Deaths per 100,000 population rose “only” 3.9% in the year to November, not 6.3%. The November 2023 rate is only slightly higher than the 2019 rate — but it is unmistakably upward over the past four years.

During that time, the pandemic dramatically affected how much we drive. The road toll dipped in 2020 and 2021, both in numbers of deaths and deaths per 100,000 population. But the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle kilometres travelled, which accounts for changes in volume of driving, stayed the same from 2019 to 2022.

We don’t know the comparable figure for 2023 yet, but if the claims of a rising road toll are right, it should show an uptick even in terms of how much we’re driving.

It’s not a national problem, peculiarly: the rising death toll is in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. Smaller numbers make for greater volatility, but in Queensland (which had particularly bad years in 2021 and 2022), Western Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory, the rate per 100,000 population fell in the year to November. Fatality rates also vary hugely between metropolitan, rural and remote areas — though much of that is down to much greater distances people in regional communities drive.

One popular theory is that as SUVs and taxpayer-subsidised large utility vehicles make up a greater proportion of the vehicle population, the danger to other road users increases as well. That’s not yet proving to be the case with pedestrians: pedestrian deaths rose by just 1 (to 163) in the year to November, and that’s below the 2019 level. Deaths of cyclists (again, small numbers = volatility) are also down. Deaths of kids under 16 are also well down. And the big rises in fatalities are happening in low-speed zones — 40 and 50km/h zones, compared to >80km/h roads where fatalities are down.

What the international figures show in terms of deaths per 100 million kilometres is that Australia, like most developed countries, has radically cut its death toll compared not just to 1990 but also to 2000. Australia is typical in moving from a fatality rate of 9.5 per 100 million kilometres travelled in 2000 to 0.6 just a decade later.

Much of that is due to a new generation of safety tech that built on previous basics such as seat belts and random breath testing: airbags, better vehicle structures that keep crash forces out of the cabin, and simple technologies like reversing cameras and sensors that make it less likely you’ll back over someone.

Since 2013, though, the decline has slowed rapidly: from 0.6 to around 0.5 in 2022. That’s right on the OECD median.

Some countries have cut their rate further since then: Norway has gone from 0.4 to 0.2. Lithuania has gone from 2.5 to below 1. Iceland from 0.5 to 0.2. The US, in contrast, actually saw a rise from 0.7 per 100 million kilometres travelled to 0.9 in 2021, in line with the fact that America is an increasingly unhealthy place to live.

For drivers and their families in NSW, Victoria and South Australia, it’s more than about statistics: there’s been a substantial rise in fatalities this year — with, inevitably and sadly, more to come this month. The more data we get, and faster, the sooner we can work out what else to do to resume the downward trajectory of crash deaths.

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