Sign up for Health Research Trax – your research network provided by Western Alliance.Register Now

The road toll – trends and possible solutions

10 April 2018

Australia is one of the world’s most urbanised countries, with 71 per cent of us living in major cities. In Victoria, 77 per cent of the population lives in a major city . However, we have low-density cities by world standards. For example, Melbourne is physically larger than London but has a third of its population, with 450 and 5432 people per square kilometre respectively. Brisbane has 150 people per square kilometre, while New York City has over 10 000.

Public transport coverage in Australia is poor relative to many cities of similar population worldwide. For these reasons, private motor vehicles remain the dominant mode of transport. Outside metropolitan areas, few alternatives exist.

Traffic accidents and consequent injuries and fatalities are inevitable corollaries of our dependence on the motor vehicle. In this article, we examine trends in road traffic casualties in Victoria and how technological and social developments might affect them.

Casualty statistics

According to the VicRoads report 2015 Victorian Road Trauma: Analysis of Fatalities and Serious Injuries (2016), 252 people died on Victoria’s roads in 2015. Two hundred and ninety people were killed in 2016, and 259 in 2017. Rates of road traffic fatalities per 100 000 population, 10 000 vehicles and 100 million vehicle kilometres travelled plateaued over the period 2013–15, after falling steadily since 2006 (VicRoads, 2016). For the same denominators, over the same period, rates of serious injuries fell slightly.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) records road traffic fatalities for countries, but not for smaller areas such as states or provinces. Nevertheless, Victoria’s 4.24 fatalities per 100 000 population in 2015 would rank the state 12th on the list of 17 OECD countries in 2013; NSW would follow at 13th with 4.57 per 100 000. Sweden tops the list at 2.72 fatalities per 100 000; the rest of Australia would be last in the OECD, with 5.34 per 100 000 (VicRoads, 2016).

Road traffic fatalities in country Victoria regularly outnumber those in metropolitan areas. In 2015, 2016 and 2017, numbers of deaths in country Victoria (137, 150 and 157 deaths respectively) were higher than in Melbourne (115, 140 and 102), as in all but three years this century .


Risks in country Victoria

The total number of vehicle kilometres travelled in country Victoria is 40 per cent higher than in metropolitan Melbourne, so the risk of a fatality is about twice as high for country Victorian road users for every vehicle kilometre travelled (VicRoads, 2016). Taking both kilometres travelled and population size (in 2015 Melbourne had 76 per cent of Victoria’s resident population) into account, the risk of a road fatality in country Victoria is about four times that in metropolitan Melbourne.

In 2015, of 137 lives lost on country roads, 97 (71 per cent) involved lane departure – the vehicle leaving its lane or running off the road and hitting an object or oncoming vehicle (VicRoads, 2016). Ninety-four country fatalities (69 per cent) occurred on roads with speed limits of 100 km/h or more .

Road trauma and the disease burden

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW, 2016), road traffic injuries to motor vehicle occupants were the 8th-ranked cause of fatalities among Australians in 2003, and the 13th-ranked in 2011. They contributed 3.3 per cent of the total fatal and non-fatal disease burden in Australia in 2003, and 2.2 per cent in 2011. The reasons for this large reduction are likely to be the decreasing road toll (discussed below) and our ageing population, who are at increasingly greater risk of illness and death from causes other than road trauma. The fraction of total fatality burden due to road traffic injuries to motor vehicle occupants is relatively high in remote (3.2 per cent of the burden in 2011) and very remote (3.1 per cent) areas.

In 2011, road traffic injuries to motor vehicle occupants were the third-ranked type of fatal injury for males and females (13.0 and 15.1 per cent, respectively), behind suicide and self-inflicted injuries (37.8 and 31.7 per cent) and poisoning (16.6 and 15.7 per cent) (AIHW, 2016). They were also the cause of approximately 9 per cent of the non-fatal injury burden.

Alcohol use contributes substantially to the burden associated with road injuries. In 2011, it was a factor in 33 per cent of road traffic injuries involving motorcyclists, 28 per cent of those involving motor vehicle occupants and 26 per cent involving other road traffic injuries (AIHW, 2016).

What might reduce the toll?

Transporting fragile humans at speeds of 100 km/h or more, in vehicles weighing several tonnes and attached to the road surface in a fairly tenuous way, poses physical risks that are very difficult to overcome. Nevertheless, Australian road fatalities have decreased markedly in the past few decades – from 3798 in 1970 to 1300 in 2016 – despite the population doubling and motor vehicle registrations tripling. In 1970 there were 8.0 road fatalities per 10 000 registered vehicles, but only 1.6 in 1997; in 1970 there were 30.4 fatalities per 100 000 population, reduced to 9.7 in 1997.

The introduction of compulsory seatbelts, safer vehicles, better roads, more effective child restraints and random breath testing are all cited as reasons for the reduction in the road toll. Further incremental decreases in casualties are likely to occur as Australia’s relatively old car fleet (Australian Automobile Association, 2017) is progressively replaced with new models incorporating technologies such as multiple airbags, anti-lock or anti-skid braking systems, electronic stability control and lane-departure warning systems. Other developments that might reduce the road toll even further are discussed briefly below.


Better public transport
Despite our cities being largely built around private motor vehicle transport, considerable scope exists to improve public transport, providing people with viable alternatives to the car. Several cities have excellent foundations for growth: Adelaide and Brisbane were world leaders in implementing rapid transit bus systems, and Melbourne has one of the largest tram networks in the world.

Most Australian cities are seeking to improve their public transport systems after decades of relative neglect, in part propelled by increasing demand in inner-city areas that already have public transport infrastructure.

Mode-swapping from private cars to public transport should reduce the road toll, as travelling by train, tram and bus is significantly safer than travelling by car. Research in Montreal showed that bus users had less than a third the rate of injury per kilometre of car occupants.

An AIHW study found that the risk of serious injury per kilometre was more than 10 times greater for people travelling by car than those travelling by rail.

Falling driver licensing
Driver licensing rates are declining slowly but steadily in Victoria. The licensing rate for people under 25 years fell from 77 per cent in 2000–01 to 66 per cent in 2012–13, while the rate for people aged 25-64 years barely changed. Similar declines have been noted in New South Wales, the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Japan and much of Europe.

The reasons for this are unclear. Tougher requirements for learning drivers, such as the 120 hours of supervised driving required to get a probationary licence in Victoria if aged under 21 years, are possible factors. Another is slower transition to full-time work and family responsibilities after the school years, and therefore reducing the need for a car and simultaneously not needing money to pay for one. Regardless of the reason, the upshot is fewer young drivers and a reduced road toll.

In their first year of driving, young drivers in Victoria are almost four times as likely as more experienced drivers to experience a fatal or serious injury in a traffic accident. In 2016, 19 per cent of drivers who lost their lives on Victorian roads were aged 18–25 years, but this group represents only around 10 per cent of licence holders.

Another potentially important factor is the ageing population. At 30 June 2009, 13.6 per cent of the population of Victoria was aged 65 years or older, and the proportion is expected to reach 23.1 per cent in 2056. Older people are more likely to be unable or unwilling to drive, or will simply drive less often and for shorter distances and rely increasingly on public transport. However, any resulting benefits to the road toll might be offset by older people who continue to drive being at higher risk of accidents due to impaired vision, dementia and other conditions associated with ageing.

Unlike some states and territories, Victoria does not require drivers to pass a licence test when they reach a certain age. And many ‘grey nomads’ (retired people who travel by road for extended periods) aren’t planning on giving up their vehicles anytime soon, as evidenced by the number of registered campervans, which grew 4.5 per cent between 2016 and 2017 – more than any other vehicle type in Australia.

Driverless cars
In a seminar on the future of travel, held at Swinburne University in late 2017, Dr Hussein Dia predicted that self-driving cars would save lives and other costs associated with car accidents. Dr Dia said that human error caused up to 90 per cent of the 1.2 million deaths that occur worldwide each year from car accidents.
However, he said, “Driven by artificial intelligence, these vehicles will not make errors of judgement the way a human driver does. They will not drink and drive. They will not fall asleep behind the wheel. They will not get distracted by playing Pokemon Go.”

The Victorian Government has partnered with engineering giant Bosch, the Transport Accident Commission and VicRoads to build the first Australian vehicle with self-driving capabilities. The self-driving vehicle is designed to navigate roads with or without driver input, and uses technological solutions to detect and avoid hazards such as pedestrians, cyclists and other vehicles. Trials will be undertaken to inform the development of regulations and infrastructure that enable similar self-driving cars to operate on Victorian roads when they become commercially available.

Attitude and behavioural change
Over the past few decades, it has become socially unacceptable to drink and drive in Australia, as almost universal support (98 per cent) for random breath testing shows (Fleiter, Lewis & Watson, 2013). Similar changes have occurred in attitudes towards compulsory seat belt use, to which there was substantial opposition in the 1970s (McLean, 2012). Legal penalties and police enforcement, coupled with extensive media coverage and road safety advertising campaigns, have all helped to create these attitudinal and behavioural changes.

Despite marked improvements in public attitudes towards many road accident risks, some serious issues remain. Speeding continues to be common and relatively socially acceptable, despite its clear correlation with accidents and trauma. Likewise, despite understanding that using a handheld phone while driving is dangerous, more than a quarter of surveyed Victorians (27 per cent) admit to doing so in the previous three months (Transport Accident Commission, 2016). A new focus on these problems will be needed to reduce their contributions to road trauma.


More than 200 people die in motor vehicle accidents on Victorian roads each year, and thousands more are injured. This represents a huge improvement on the road toll from only a few decades ago, but more remains to be done. Better vehicles, more efficient and widely available public transport, self-driving cars and improved driver behaviour all have the potential to reduce the road toll.


Australian Automobile Association (AAA, 2017) Benefits of reducing the age of Australia’s light vehicle fleet: Summary report. Canberra: AAA.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW, 2016) Australian Burden of Disease Study: Impact and causes of illness and death in Australia 2011. Canberra: AIHW.

Fleiter JJ, Lewis I and Watson B (2013) Promoting a more positive traffic safety culture in Australia: Lessons learnt and future directions. 2013 Australasian College of Road Safety Conference – ‘A Safe System: The Road Safety Discussion’, 6-8 November, Adelaide.

McLean AJ (2012) Reflections on speed control from a public health perspective. Journal of the Australasian College of Road Safety, 23(3), 51–9.

Transport Accident Commission (2016). Road Safety Monitor Final Report 2016.

VicRoads (2016) 2015 Victorian road trauma: Analysis of fatalities and serious injuries. VicRoads: Melbourne.