If you picture a serious car accident which has claimed lives, you probably picture the type of accident that will make it into the news. These accidents typically involve multiple vehicles traveling at high speeds, and the ones that take a heavy toll in lives frequently involve heavy vehicles. The types of images that accompany these stories are easily seared into the mind.
However, while these kinds of accidents occur routinely, they do not account for the majority of fatal incidents on Australian roads. Instead many lethal car accidents are not as dramatic, and many might even appear survivable at first glance. It is therefore important for drivers to develop awareness of how dangerous many relatively innocuous accidents can be, and what types of contexts lethal accidents most frequently play out in.
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Getting an accurate picture of the road toll
Every year the data collected by Australian states and territories is combined to create a single report at national level, the Depart of Infrastructure and Regional Development’s Road Trauma Australia Statistical Report. The 2016 edition of this publication was used as the primary resource for this discussion, referencing other research into dangerous driving behaviours where applicable.
The dangers of speeding have been the subject of numerous public awareness campaigns in Australia. However, speeding continues to be a major contributor to the Australian road toll, with approximately 30% of deaths on Australian roads considered to be the result of speeding.
Part of the problem with addressing this behaviour is that many drivers don’t realize that speeding does not simply involve driving a vehicle above the maximum state speed limit. It more frequently involves exceeding any posted speed limit, or driving at any speed which is inappropriate to conditions, such as when the road is wet or there is reduced visibility.
This problem becomes clear when you consider fatal accident statistics.
More than half of Australian fatal accidents in 2016 took place on roads signposted at 90 km/h or lower. Furthermore, there were more than twice as many fatal accidents in speed zones posted at 60 km/h or lower than there were in 110 km/h or above zones.
This effectively means that the majority of fatal car accidents are not spectacular high-speed events, but instead involve cars driving at relatively low speeds in speed zones which the majority of people are likely to consider lower risk for serious accidents.
Single vehicle accidents
The conventional picture of serious car accidents involves at least two vehicles.
In reality more than half of all fatal non-pedestrian car accidents involve just one vehicle. In 2016, single vehicle crashes accounted for 44% of all fatal crashes in Australia that year. This compared to multiple vehicle crashes which accounted for 41.7% of fatal accidents, with crashes involving pedestrians making up the remainder of that year’s road toll.
Single vehicle run-off road accidents comprise the majority of single car accidents. In fact in 2015 accidents involving single vehicles departing the road accounted for about a third of the overall road toll. Another notable feature of these accidents is that they are significantly more likely to occur at night than multiple vehicle accidents. In 2016 the number of fatal single car accidents at night was almost double the number of fatal multiple car accidents that occurred at night.
This information is revealing because single car accidents are highly likely to be the result of easily avoidable driving behaviours like speeding, reckless cornering, driving under the influence and inattention. They therefore highlight the extent to which the Australian road toll could be reduced by individual drivers adopting safer and more responsible driving behaviours.
Heavy vehicles can pose a significant hazard to road users because the accidents in which they are involved can easily affect multiple road users. In addition the consequences of collisions with heavy vehicles are likely to be particularly severe. Because accidents involving heavy vehicles are more likely to claim multiple lives, these can attract high levels of press coverage.
Accident statistics for Australia reveal that heavy vehicles make up a fraction of the total number of fatal accidents. In 2016 only 16% of all fatal accidents involved heavy vehicles. The overwhelming majority of serious accidents instead involved light passenger vehicles. Statistics for 2015 highlighted the vulnerability of motorcyclists, with motorcyclists accounting for 47% of road deaths that year.
Busses were the vehicles least likely to be involved in a serious accident, accounting for around 2% of all fatal accidents in 2016.
While heavy vehicles should always be treated with caution and respect, statistics suggest that drivers should not underestimate the danger posed by light vehicles. In addition all road users should develop awareness of the motorcyclists, who have proven to be particularly vulnerable to serious accidents on Australian roads.
Many people are familiar with the increased risk of driving at night, as night driving limits visibility and poses additional hazards, such as a higher proportion of drunk and fatigued drivers being out on the road. However, while the night driving should always be treated with caution for these reasons, it is the evening period that takes the greatest toll on lives.
Evenings are the most dangerous time of the day to drive. An analysis for crash data from 2014 to 2016 showed that more fatal accidents occurred between 3pm and 8:59pm than any other time of day. This held true for every day of the week except Monday, where driving was most hazardous between 9am and 2:59pm. Friday and Saturday evenings were the two most dangerous times to drive on Australian roads.
While driving between these hours is an unavoidable part of most peoples’ daily routines, this information suggests that increased vigilance and care should be exercised while driving in the evenings, and on Friday and Saturday evenings in particular.
Although rollover accidents make up a small fraction of the total number of fatal accidents every year, their lethality means that they account for a disproportionate number of road deaths. These types of accidents also contribute to the large number of deaths from single vehicle accidents.
Australian states do not report detailed information on these accident types. However, they have been investigated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in the United States.
This organisation used road crash statistics from 2000 to determine that while only 3% of vehicle accidents that year involved rolling vehicles, these were responsible 20% of all deaths recorded in passenger vehicles that year. This makes rollover accidents by far the most dangerous accident type, and highlights why it is important to understand the risks associated with reckless cornering.
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