Road fatalities children 0-5 years, Australia vs UK and Sweden

Last month I wrote that most of the public discussion around road safety is concerned with the number of deaths and tends to overlook the much larger number of road-related injuries, some of them extremely serious (see Which road users are most likely to end up in hospital?).

There were 1,193 road-related deaths in Australia in 2013. However a further 30,000 people were admitted to hospital with injuries suffered in road crashes.

I was pleased to see that Fairfax took up this issue on Saturday. Relying on data in a new report by a state parliamentary inquiry into serious road injury, The Age’s leader writer points out there are 17 serious injuries for every road fatality in Victoria. The cost to the state of caring for road trauma victims is circa $4 billion per year.

What strikes me though is that both The Age and the parliamentary committee argue that “the only acceptable road-toll statistic is zero”. That objective echoes Sweden’s Vision Zero program which also targets zero casualties (see Can we make our roads as safe as Sweden’s?).

There’s no argument that zero fatalities and zero serious injuries on our roads would be a fantastic outcome, but does it make sense? Is it good policy?

According to the managers of Vision Zero, the scheme,

can be summarised in one sentence: No loss of life is acceptable… Ultimately, no one should die or suffer serious injury in traffic… There can be no moral justification for the death of one single person.

The scheme gives absolute priority to safety in the design and management of roads over other objectives like speed or convenience.

A core principle of the vision is that ‘Life and health can never be exchanged for other benefits within the society’ rather than the more conventional approach where a monetary value is placed on life and health which is then used with a Benefit-cost ratio evaluation before investing money in the road network to decrease risk.

The trouble with this philosophy is that almost no activity that involves risk can be made casualty-free. In most cases we can’t readily anticipate all possible risks. And even for those we can reasonably foresee, the cost of avoiding the marginal fatality or serious injury increases dramatically as it gets closer to zero.

It’s probably theoretically possible to design jetliners so they could crash without any passengers dying, but it would be so expensive, so heavy, so slow, use so much fuel, require so much space for landing and take-off, that no one would use it and no one would want it.

The savings in life would come at the cost of lowering the quality of millions more. Ubiquitous international travel and all its attendant benefits would not exist if we weren’t prepared to accept the risk of some deaths.

Seat belts, random breath testing, progressive crumple, air bags, freeways, etc, all added to the cost of road travel but helped reduce the number of road fatalities in Australia from 49.3 persons per billion kms of person travel in 1970 to 5.6 in 2011. Less noticeable were other costs, like the dramatic fall in the number of children walking to school.

The accumulated benefits have presumably outweighed the accumulated costs up to this time, but getting a further significant reduction would be much harder. There would come a point where the costs of pursuing this single objective to the exclusion of all else would rise by orders of magnitude and have profoundly negative economic, environmental and equity consequences in other areas.

The Western Australian government’s pursuit of zero fatalities from shark attacks is a current example of how a single-minded focus invariably imposes high costs in other areas.

I don’t know off-hand what an acceptable fatality rate for Australia’s roads might be. I expect there’s still some relatively low hanging fruit to be picked (like fatalities among children aged up to five years – see exhibit) so it’s probably a lot less than it is now, but it’s certainly not zero or even nearby.

It can be argued that a target of zero is just a powerful way of marketing the objective of fewer road casualties (i.e. it’s not meant to be taken literally), but the risk is it can crowd out other legitimate concerns. The reality is absolute ‘zero tolerance’ targets are rarely achievable and even when they are, the cost in other areas is usually higher.

It would be much more valuable if policy-makers concentrated on building a shared public consensus around the idea that the cost of chasing down the last handful of casualties is stupidly stratospheric; that everything we do involves multiple trade-offs, often including other areas of activity; and that the costs and benefits are never, ever all the same for everybody.

Update: To reduce the severity of car crashes, a new report apparently calls for trams to be slowed to 30 kph in some places: Melbourne tram commuters face slower rides to save lives.