The Christmas New Year period is for some a time of intense grief, with loved ones lost to pointless motor vehicle fatalities. We are constantly reminded of the importance of not speeding or toying with mobile phones while driving but year after year, the road toll often seems to remain stubbornly high.
It is no consolation to someone who loses a loved one or family member, but the statistics overall show that the road toll is actually falling significantly – so hopefully we are on the right track.
Total road fatalities across Australia peaked in the 1970s and have trended down sharply since then. This is despite a very significant increase in population from the 1970s onwards. Fewer drink drivers and safer vehicles are among the explanations for this.
On a per capita basis, the falling road toll is just as dramatic, falling from a peak of 30.4 deaths per 100,000 people in 1970 to 4.65 per 100,000 people in 2018. This is the lowest ever.
However, the per capita statistics don't take account of the fact that there are more cars per person now than in the 1970s or almost any time in our history. Car ownership has become available to almost all members of society. People are more inclined to travel by car and fewer travel by public transport. So the rate of road fatalities per 100,000 vehicles is possibly a better indication – and this shows a long term decline to record lows. The early arrival of the first motor vehicles was clearly a dangerous time: poor skills, poor technology and poor roads proving a lethal combination. But road safety campaigns, improved roads (and slower roads thanks to congestion?) and improved vehicle design have all contributed to an impressive fall in the rate of road fatalities per 100,000 vehicles.
The arrival of further advances in motor vehicle technology – including the advent of self-driving cars – could lead to even further reductions to the road toll in the future.
As a means of readily accessible and on-demand transport, there are good reasons why the private motor vehicle has proved so popular. It can also be dangerous but we can find some comfort that the dangers have been falling steadily. This statistical reality is at odds with some inaccurate suggestions that the road toll is rising and that further curbs to driver discretion and individual liberty are required to bring it under control.
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