Science and oil prices behind lower road toll – expert

Thursday 3 May 2012, 4:41PM
By Dog & Lemon Guide

Science and higher fuel prices are the main reason for April’s lower road toll, says the car review website

Provisional figures show 12 road deaths in April - the lowest for any month since 1965, when monthly records began.

Editor Clive Matthew-Wilson, whose road safety research was awarded by the Australian Police Journal, says:

“Higher fuel prices mean that the highest risk group – young, working-class males – make far less trips. The less trips you make, the less accidents you have.”

“Higher fuel prices, combined with super-cheap airfares, have also made major changes to the way ordinary people use cars. People tend to use their cars for trips that are hard to avoid, such as shopping or driving to work. Because these trips tend to be made on congested roads, the risk of fatal accidents is greatly reduced. It’s hard to have a fatal collision when you’re stuck in rush hour traffic.”

“Also, a generation ago, people would regularly drive long distances between two major towns. Now they tend to fly. Because these trips are now being made by plane, the open road is safer.”

“Science is a major contributor to the lower road toll. People are still having accidents, but they’re surviving due to safer cars & safer roads. For example, scientific studies show beyond doubt that many head-on collisions are easily preventable.”

A wire rope barrier was installed along a 10km stretch south of Paekakariki in 2005. In the 20 years before it was installed, head-on collisions claimed about 40 lives and around 120 people were seriously injured.

“After the wire rope median barrier was installed, the serious accidents stopped overnight. Hundreds of vehicles have sideswiped the barrier, but the barrier itself has prevented many minor accidents becoming major ones.”

“Modern cars are also protecting their occupants very well. People are surviving collisions that would have been fatal even a decade ago. Modern medical science is also helping to stop injuries becoming fatalities.”

Matthew-Wilson disputes suggestions that the lower road toll is due to increased enforcement of speed limits.

“In fact, 80% of fatalities occur below the speed limit.”

“The 2011 New Zealand Christmas road toll was 50% higher than the year before, despite a vigorous police anti-speeding campaign in both years.”

Matthew-Wilson also scoffs at claims that changes to the Give Way rules have lowered the road toll.

“There’s simply no science to support that view. Intersection accidents make up about 20% of the road toll, and the fatal intersection accidents tend to occur at high speeds in rural areas. I have yet to see any evidence that changes to the Give Way rules have greatly affected the factors behind those fatalities.”

Matthew-Wilson adds:

“I’m concerned that, after 50 years of scientific studies of road accidents, there’s still so much nonsense talked about causes of the road toll and how to lower it.”

“Road safety resources are limited: let’s use them where they’re going to make the most difference.”

Three common myths about road safety:

1) “Speeding by ordinary motorists is a major cause of road fatalities.”

Not true. A 2009 AA summary of 300 fatal crashes found:

“Exceeding speed limits aren't a major issue. Police surveying has found that even the top 15% of open-road speeders average under 110km/h.[And] “it is apparent that [many speed-based road fatalities] were caused by people who don't care about any kind of rules. These are men who speed, drink, don't wear safety belts, have no valid license or WoF - who are basically renegades. They usually end up wrapped around a tree, but they can also overtake across a yellow line and take out other motorists as well.”

2) Road safety ads help motorists drive better.

Actually, there’s no scientific evidence that road safety advertisements work at all. Multiple studies have failed to find any link between road safety advertisements and a lower road toll.

3) Driver education is the key to lowering the road toll.

Actually, most evidence suggests the opposite. Skilled racing drivers tend to have more accidents than average because they’re natural risk-takers. Various studies have shown that educating young drivers to, say, deal with skids, actually increases their likelihood of having an accident. This is because these better-trained young drivers tend to have an exaggerated sense of their own ability.

There is, however, some evidence that teaching young drivers basic driving and life skills improves their chances of avoiding accidents.