Another Christmas holiday season, another wave of Australian families impacted by the tragedy of our – increasing – road toll.

ROAD SAFETY EXPERTS have expressed concern about a spike in accidents and fatalities this year. From January to November 2016, 1185 people died on Australian roads – 75 more than the same period last year.

Between 23 December 2016 and 3 January 2017 – considered to be the ‘holiday season’ from a road safety perspective – 40 more people had died, up from 34 in the same period last year.

These numbers are even more remarkable when you consider that motor vehicles are safer than they’ve ever been (although we’ve written recently about whether car safety standards are actually as effective as they could be).

Road deaths have however been dropping fairly consistently over the past decade or so, thanks in no small part to well-designed seat belts, air bags, crumple zones, and even headrests.

Most of these are ‘passive’ safety features, designed to keep you inside the vehicle and as protected as possible, in case of an accident.

A really interesting area of development is the range of ‘active’ safety features, that are increasingly becoming standard on newer vehicles.

And there are many: from anti-lock brakes, forward-facing cameras, collision and lane departure warnings to electronic stability control and traction control, even blind-spot warnings and reversing cameras – these are all the ways in which your car is working to stop you from having an accident in the first place.

Yet, we continue to die on our roads.

It could be argued these advanced safety features lead to a level of comfort and complacency among us drivers. Leading us to take risks and push the limits harder than we might if we weren’t so confident in our cars.

Are these safety features not working? Or are they just not enough to mitigate our silly behaviour behind the wheel?

When it comes to the reducing the road toll, it seems that ideas are in ample supply, but solutions are proving harder to find.

Do we need to limit the age of vehicles on our roads? Countries like Paris and Japan ban older vehicles for reasons of reducing pollution in their major cities, but this might have the added benefit of improving the net safety level of vehicles on the road.

While speed continues to feature in reasons for the road toll, it’s a popular argument to increase speed limits. The reasoning is generally that this will reduce frustration and fatigue by getting people where they want to go, more quickly and efficiently. It’s a suggestion that has even been backed by some studies.

Still others suggest our focus on speed as the cause of accidents is flawed; that in fact, it comes at the cost of focusing more on driver education and training as well as other factors such as fatigue and driver distraction. This approach usually comes with the suggestion of introducing regular testing and re-testing of drivers throughout our lives – not just at the beginning the end of our driving careers – as well as stricter penalties and greater enforcement of road rules.

And that doesn’t even touch upon the argument of whether our driver training and testing is good enough to begin with. Mandatory defensive driving courses and independent tuition (so young drivers don’t learn their parents’ bad habits …) are often mentioned.

Finally, there are many who suggest the culprits aren’t the humans behind the wheel at all. Poor quality roads, poor signage, poor lighting and questionable road design decisions can place even the most competent driver at risk.

When we talk about roads toll statistics, it’s easy to write-off those numbers as reasonable given the number of people and vehicles on the roads. But try telling that to the families and friends of the 80+ more people killed on our roads this year – it’s a sentiment that Victoria’s famed Transport Accidents Commission (TAC) captures well in this recent campaign.

The TAC and many of its interstate counterparts have a ‘getting to zero’ approach to road fatalities, and they reckon it’s achievable.

But last year’s Benchmarking the Performance of the National Road Safety Strategy report, released by the Australian Automobile Association in October, found the National Road Safety Strategy is already running around four years behind in some states, in its mission to reduce road deaths and injuries by 30 per cent over ten years.

So, it looks like whatever we’re doing is not working – at least, not as dramatically as hoped.

I know when I’ve had a couple of near misses in my driving life (from which I and everyone else fortunately emerged unscathed) it was undoubtedly due to driver distraction.

Not using the mobile phone, shouting at the kids or fiddling with the radio, as common as these distractions are. But rather, being lost in my own thoughts – angry, upset, worried or stressed – and sadly not focused on what I was doing.

While I accept my responsibility for the silly mistakes I’ve made, this does highlight to me that our behaviour behind the wheel and the outcomes we experience don’t occur in a vacuum.

They’re the result of an enormous combination of factors, ranging from the kind of day we’ve had and how we’re feeling, to the type of vehicle we’re driving, to the reason we’re driving at all.

I’m not sure how we legislate to address that.

Over to you – how do we address our road toll? Can we really get to zero, or do we have to accept a number of fatalities as part of the deal?


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About Author

Jane Speechley

Jane Speechley is an experienced freelance writer whose natural curiosity means she knows enough about cars to hold a decent conversation. While happily admitting her Toyota 86 makes promises her street driving can’t quite keep, she’s relishing the opportunity to review some of Australia’s most interesting new vehicles from an ‘everyperson’ perspective. She’s on a mission to understand and explain how all those features and gadgets actually impact upon your driving experience.


  1. Hi Jane,

    I think we will eventually get to zero, but only after cars become massively smarter and networked. Sadly, humans are the flawed element in the equation of driving.

    Like you, I’ve had some near misses over the years and distraction was the main cause – thinking about something else, or stewing over life issues. You miss those subtle cues about slowing down or taking more care.

    Where are the fatalities occurring – mainly country roads? That is the real problem, our very poor driver education. People can learn to drive in a city and then drive anywhere in the state/country, with absolutely no training about overtaking, fatigue, judging road conditions, wildlife incursions etc etc etc. We really need to up the training for people who get behind the wheel, as they do in Germany.

    I drove from Sydney to Merimbula just before Christmas, and due to a late getaway I did the drive down Brown Mountain late at night. There were two wallaby misses, a missed wombat, and a very lucky baby possum that just missed going under my front wheel. These are the conditions people need to train for, or at least be trained about. I would like to see a massive jump in driver training (and re-training at licence renewal time) and see what this does for the road toll. I would also like all cars equipped with a black box. Data could be erased every time the engine is switched off for privacy, but if you have a fatal prang let’s find out what people were doing at the time – is speed really the bogeyman it’s made out to be? There are no simple answers for this but let’s try better training first.

  2. Need data on root causes of fatalities, not just the police saying excessive speed. There are too many fatalities at or below the speed limit as well. Once true root causes are known, this data can be used to formulate responses that can be measured. Shooting back with suggestions without the data is a waste of time.

  3. We all know that technology is sweeping through society like never before. Research has shown that at the same time as children are spending more time with technology the use of psychotropic medication and therapy has quadrupled for school aged children. Very young children are being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, autism and other types of mental illness. Technology is rewiring our brains and our mental health. Maybe we could draw a connection between the (over)use of technology and an unhealthy state of mind that is not conducive to safe driving?

  4. Education is the answer but politicians will continue to focus on the simplistic. They will go the “speed kills” route because that requires no thinking, little expenditure and in fact, makes money (speed cameras, radar, etc).

  5. Part of the problem is boredom. Driving is so easy and undemanding now, at excruciatingly slow limits and the car does all the work. There is plenty of time and energy for mobile phones, GPS, chat etc etc. If you drive somewhere like Germany or UK motorways, nobody has the opportunity to get bored because they have to pay attention. There is already research showing bored drivers have more accidents, and especially young drivers, because they have more energy and bore easily.

  6. Society is so connected at the moment that expecting that people will not be distracted by their phone is unreasonable. I know my wife puts her phone in her bag in the back seat to save her from the distraction, but then it will beep/ring/bong/buzz/some other noise to tell her that something crazy important has happened in the social media space like someone has posted a photos of what they are eating for brunch and the urge to check that message is so great she will go reaching for it while driving to get it out as she really must see what it was. This seems to be the case for so many people. Social media is designed to be like a drug so you feel like you will miss out if you do not check what is coming through. I feel this is a large contributer to the driving skills on our roads becoming lower and lower.

    Add to this that cars are in general not really fun to drive anymore and with all the added traffic on the roads with no real road upgrades there is no room to have fun anyways as you just put along in traffic. Plus with the constant hammering about doing anything fun in a car is bad and hoonish and people just don’t care for driving anymore. Also driving is now starting to be an expensive exercise when you look at the repayments on your car plus fuel and other things and It is just a tool now to get from A to B and people are treating it with that level of care. Australia is just not a car drive loving society anymore.

    Maybe we just need to accept that people will be distracted an as there is no real effective way to make people put down or stop thinking about the phones we should start training people to multitask whilst driving so they can look at their phone and get from A to B at the same time.

  7. You cannot legislate against stupidity. I nearly had a head on in a car park, woman in a Territory on a mobile as she turned a corner. Little control so she veered onto the wrong side of the road. Take that out on the open road and there is potential disaster. It’s hard to prove but I reckon that some country road fatalities are suicide. High speed, no seatbelt? It’s certainly not playing safe. Boredom plays a part. The only thing that keeps me alert on the Hume Highway is the countless tax, sorry, speed cameras. I spend much time looking at the speedo rather than the road. How do you stop people from driving through flood waters? And on it goes. The only real answer is to actually police the roads. People get to know where the fixed cameras are. Cameras don’t catch mobile phone users. They do not pick up the inattentive. Since there are no votes and no money in offering real solutions, the hand-wringing and blame shifting will continue.

  8. Firstly, although the road toll in numbers may be up, in real terms by any measure (deaths per km, drivers licenced, vehicles registered) are down. Any activity involves risk and that risk can be minimised but not eliminated.
    Analysis of the cause of each accident will help prevent future accidents (as in aviation) but in reality, ticking the box “speed” because the car was moving creates a false, misleading and quite dangerous impression.
    Also, safety features in cars need to be classed into primary, secondary and tertiary – primary to stop you getting into dangerous situations, secondary to help you get out of dangerous situations and tertiary to minimise the effects of the dangerous situation. Often, primary features are only included on “luxury’ models yet may be very cheap to include and are sometimes different for different people. Personally I’d like to see discussion and preparation of lists of each
    ESC (for me) needs to be able to be switched off in certain situations – twice it nearly killed me by braking one wheel and directing the car into the side of an oncoming truck.
    For new drivers, insisting on “safest” cars can indirectly decrease driver skill development as the car can overcome driver deficiencies and never allow them to see their lack of skill.

      1. I was on the Eyre Highway – raining and the depressed wheel pads were full of water (perhaps an inch or two).
        Passing road trains and the car I was driving (2010 Toyota Corolla) was sucked slightly to the right and the right wheels went into the wheel pads. The right front tyre began to aquaplane – so I can only presume that it accelerated with no grip – and then the water stopped and I found the right front wheel had been braked and the car veered to the right. Unfortunately the rear trailer of the road train was literally right in my face. I did manage to avoid it.
        When I stopped soon after, I found out how to turn the ESC off. No problem, except of course the ESC switched itself back on after I had stopped the next time and I suffered another heart-in-mouth situation.
        In discussion after, I found it is relatively common with front-wheel drives with ESC.

        1. Interesting, not heard of that. ESC would only slow the wheel down to the speed of the other wheel, not lower so I don’t see how it would cause a veer to the right, and that’s assuming there was sufficient acceleration differnece.

          1. “For example, in a severe hydroplaning scenario, the wheels that ESC would use to correct a skid may not even initially be in contact with the road, reducing its effectiveness.”
            I assume from this that the ESC assumes the vehicle is in a skid because the right driving wheel is hydroplaning while the left is driving, but the steering wheel will be pointing in a different direction because of the loss of traction. Thus the braking of the right wheel causes a slowing down of the right wheel, and as the wheel ceases hydroplaning, it is rotating less quickly and therefore causes the veer to the right.
            Without further research (and for me it will be theoretical as I value my life too much), I can only rely on my experience which was replicated twice under identical circumstances (i.e. occurred three times in total within an hour or so).
            If you have any references to the actual operation of ESC (i.e. inputs and flow diagrams of different situations and outputs), I would be grateful to examine them.

          2. Thanks Doug. A key ESC feature is measuring yaw, or rotation around a vertical axis (explained here

            If the vehicle is driving straight and the steering wheel is straight then there is no yaw and the direction of the car is the same as the driver intends. Therefore, ESC will not activate. Related programmes such as engine or brake traction control may activate though. I’m not even sure that’s what happened, as when offroad it is very common for a spinning wheel to be braked while in the air and when that wheel hits the ground there is no yaw one way or the other. That’s because the braked wheel is only braked to close to the speed of the non-spinning wheel. At speed there’s not a lot of torque going through the wheels so wouldn’t be a lot of wheelspin either.

            However, the situation you describe could well activate ESC if the steering wheel wasn’t quite aligned with the car’s travel direction and that’s entirely possible due to a natural correction and the lack of grip. Also, the text above says that ESC’s effectiveness is reduced, not that is it counter-productive.

            I don’t know what happened with your specific situation but can well believe that ESC did not help matters, particularly as it was a 2010 model which would have had a much less effective version of ESC than today’s cars. It is not possible to sit at a computer and write algorithms to handle every possible situation a car may encounter. I have seen flowcharts etc of ESC but I don’t think they’d help because as you say, real-world testing is the only real way to prove the point.

            Overall, ESC is like seatbelts – for every situation where it doesn’t help there are thousands of situations where it does, so overall it’s a very good thing.

          3. I agree, Robert, that it can be a very good thing, but I’m one who likes to know EXACTLY how it works. The difficulty is that each manufacturer will treat the different inputs in different ways – and that’s why I’d like to see the flowcharts AND the quantification of the inputs.
            I suppose I am still of the generation who wants to be able to drive a car and not have the car drive me, especially if it sometimes produces the opposite results to what I want.
            In my Commodore, if I want to drive “spiritedly” in unsealed roads, I have to turn the Traction Control off so I can get the car to do what I want.
            As a teacher for nearly 40 years and now retired, I still haven’t learned to stop asking “Why?”, but in many cases I can’t get a complete answer.

          4. Hi Doug,
            I might have some information to fill the gaps;
            Technology (for want of another word) is 2 dimensional. The technology you speak of is attempting to combine, grip, yaw and stability.
            Using basic vector maths as the basis of this discussion, the speed and the intended direction are calculating (many hundreds of times per second) to ensure the wheel rotations are all similar (within 5% of each other).
            Unsealed (gravel more specifically) roads will offer something that is hard to measure as the surface is rolling with a rolling tyre.
            If you brake a bit late for an intersection and the ABS intrudes, you have still misjudged the grip levels and the car (quite rightly) intervenes.
            The art to a spirited drive on gravel means you yaw cannot exceed 2-5 degrees. Driving on the edge of slip requires huge amounts of concentration and application of the controls. Its something we do when training engineers.
            Finally, the event you speak of with the car going into yaw after aquaplaning.., it probably wasn’t aquaplaning but the resistance of the water because you may have still been in contact with the road.
            Aquaplaning is a very rare event and requires deep water and high speed, ideally of both front tyres.

  9. Hi Robert and Jane,
    I cannot believe I missed this article! There are few very interesting points raised over the last 2 weeks.
    1. As long as a human is involved, the chances of error are higher than automation. Look at this as a case when building cars.
    2. As long as we continue to use the licencing (and renewal) systems we do, there will be no improvement in standards and Australian standards are ‘generally’ seen as slow, close and useless.
    3. Speed is not the villain. The argument of an increase of speed by 10 kph will increase the chances of serious injury are not clear and I cannot get a clear answer on the formula or rationale used by the UN or local ‘road safety experts’.
    4. There is evidence that 100 kph incites fatigue.
    5. ESC is not the villain either but the writer does have a point that it can unsettle the car (intrusively) requiring the driver to be very aware at all times of their level of control. ESC can in effect alter the steering/direction when the diagonally opposed wheels are braked.
    6. ESC s not equal. Different manufactures (like ABS) set at different parameters when measuring ‘Mu’ (grip) and yaw. The better the engineering the better the ESC…., often found with better cars.

    Basically, as long as ‘we’ are aiming for the back fence with regard to standards, the current crash, injury and fatality rates wont change.

    As long as technology improves, so to will the crash/fatality rates. Its a no brainer.

    Silly, absurd and childish advertising selling Utopian ideals of zero crashes/fatals etc is not a realistic objective, albeit honorable.

    If guns where the answer to a safe society, then the US would be the safety country in the world. If low speeds, poor training/licencing and being heavily fined for speeding, Australia would have the safest roads int he world.

    Roads and driving pose a risk, how we manage that risk is the key. Current methods of fines etc are not the answer and the evidence is int he results of our crash stats.

    Please continue the great work.

      1. Hi PM!
        I am frantically trying to find the study (done in the EU) associating various speeds (with certain conditions) inciting a higher likelihood of boredom and getting fatigued.

        An example (or rather anecdote); some years ago (2000 to 2004) we did an experiment on the road and at race tracks where we covered the speedo. We asked the driver to estimate 100 kph and hold a contact cruise.

        We found that most of the drivers found 120 kph to be the speed they settled into and could sustain but could not judge 100 and could not sustain it as easily.

        We did this with approximately 100 people and the first time was during ‘Celebrity Training; for the Clipsal 500. Then we did it again with engineers and technicians from vehicle manufactures on closed locations where the freeway is simulated.

        My recollections was that Mercedes Benz did the study about 10 years ago. I cannot locate it.

  10. This is a well written and interesting article.
    Its pleasing to read that, as well as driving to and from work regularly, you also enjoy social outings, that involves your motor car, with friends and family. Whilst continuing to be and remain a motoring enthusiast.
    Bravo !

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