Smashing the road toll: Easter and beyond

Conferences, Media releases, World Congress on Public Health

World Congress on Public Health points towards safer roads

  • Australia has been a leader in road safety policy but we’re still losing more than 1,200 lives on our roads each year
  • First year of driving critical for keeping adolescent drivers awake, alert and alive
  • Paving the way for autonomous vehicles
  • Aboriginal Australians three times more likely to die on roads: can we close the gap?

Road deaths in Australia peaked in 1970, when 3,798 people died. A long-term downwards trend in road deaths means our road toll is now less than a third of that peak figure, but the road toll and the burden of injuries from road accidents remain a public health challenge.

Globally, the road toll has plateaued at 1.25 million per year, but there are still high fatality rates in low income countries and it’s the number one cause of death among people aged 15 to 29 years. 

“We learnt many things about road safety at the Congress, including how to help those who are most at risk of death or injury on our roads,” said Michael Moore AM, CEO of the Public Health Association of Australia and President of the World Federation of Public Health Associations.

“The National Road Safety Strategy aims to reduced road deaths and severe injury by 30 per cent between 2011 and 2020. Despite progress that should be proud of, we’re still grappling with new challenges, such as the distractions of devices and substance abuse. We can’t rest on our laurels.”

As we approach the Easter weekend and beyond, lessons learned from the World Congress on Public Health can be put into action to save lives.

Road safety presentations from the Congress include:

Asleep at the wheel – Bridie Scott-Parker, University of the Sunshine Coast

Around the world road traffic accidents are the leading cause of death for people aged between 15 and 29 years old. Despite their increased risk of injury in a road crash, adolescents often continue to drive despite increasing sleepiness.

Adolescents are often associated with risky behaviours, including decisions made behind the wheel of a car. Driving whilst tired is particularly risky for young drivers due to their inexperience in detecting and reacting appropriately to driving hazards.

Dr Bridie Scott-Parker spoke about a recent study which explored sleep-related risky driving behaviour in adolescents.

This work showed that the first year of holding a licence is a critical period; during this time teenage drivers became more self-aware about the risks of driving tired. And they also became more aware of ineffective countermeausres to sleepiness, suggesting that assisting new drivers in properly identifying and managing sleepiness signs is critical for public health prevention efforts.

Autonomous vehicles will save lives; Curtin’s mini-bus is ready to roll – Simone Pettigrew, Curtin University

First it was road rules; in the 70s it was seatbelts; next it’s autonomous cars that will save lives on our roads and transform how we get around.

Autonomous vehicles are expected to cut congestion, decrease the road toll, and reduce the precious real estate currently used for car parking.

Simone Pettigrew’s research shows that autonomous cars will bring huge health benefits, drastically reducing the number of car accidents and cutting the air pollution emitted from the tailpipes of our cars, trucks and other vehicles. But they’re also a new, unfamiliar technology—we need to understand how people feel about autonomous vehicles in order to smooth the transition of this technology from lab to day-to-day life.

Curtin University—where Simone Pettigrew is a Professor with the Faculty of Health Sciences—is so happy with the idea, they’ve got their own autonomous shuttle bus. It runs on 100 per cent electricity, can carry up to 11 passengers and safely drive up to 45km per hour. It’s currently being programmed and will be on the road in the next couple of weeks.

At the World Congress on Public Health, Simone presented the results of a study of Australians’ attitudes to these vehicles and their perceptions of the positive and negative outcomes that are likely to result from the transition to these new vehicles.

‘Driving Change’: closing the gap for Indigenous road deaths – Rebecca Ivers, The George Institute for Global Health

Aboriginal people are up to three times more likely to die on the roads than other Australians, but licencing laws often make it harder than usual for them to get a licence.

“There is a critical need for programs aimed at improving safety for Aboriginal people,” said Professor Rebecca Ivers, Director of the Injury Division at The George Institute for Global Health. She is part of a group delivering Driving Change, a community based licensing program that tackles these barriers by helping young Aboriginal people in NSW to negotiate the licencing system, from paperwork to driving lessons.

And getting a driving licence can health benefits beyond reducing the likelihood of being involved in a road traffic accident. Being able to drive can lead to greater employment and educational opportunities, and can benefit the whole community.

Speaking at the World Congress on Public Health, Rebecca explained the success of their program, highlighting the necessity for community engagement and leadership in its delivery. Through this Driving Change has supported 1,000 clients with 400 obtaining licences, and demonstrated how such programs can deliver important social outcomes.

“Funding and program support for these programs is essential to ensure accessible and acceptable programs can continue to provide these important services,” said Rebecca.

Background: road safety facts and stats

  • 3,798 people died on Australia’s roads in 1970. Our road toll is now less than a third of that peak figure, despite having a much larger population and well over three times as many vehicles on our roads.
  • Globally, the road toll has plateaued at 1.25 million per year. It is the leading cause of death among people aged 15 to 29 years.
  • In the USA, you’re twice as likely to die on the roads than in Australia, three times as likely in Indonesia, six times more likely in Thailand and 13 times more likely in Libya.
  • In 1969, The Sun News-Pictorial newspaper’s editor Harry Gordon decided to ‘Declare War on 1,034’ (Victoria’s road toll at the time) and campaigned for the state government to introduce the world’s first mandatory seatbelt laws.
  • Seatbelts, motor cycle helmets, initiatives addressing drink driving, better vehicle safety, policing technologies and improved roads have saved thousands of lives.

The World Congress on Public Health was held from 3 to 7 April at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, bringing together leading public health researchers and policymakers from across the globe.

More at and @wcph2017 on Twitter.
Contact Niall on 0417 131 977, or Tanya on 0404 083 863 for interviews