Serious accidents on Australian roads can usually be attributed to one or more of a handful of risky driving behaviours. For many years these were known as the ‘fatal four’. However, distracted driving recently joined the list of Australia’s most dangerous driving behaviours. Each of the fatal five are based on human rather than mechanical error, which highlights the disturbing fact that the majority of tragedies on Australian roads could be avoided through smarter driving.
Here’s a guide to the fatal five risky driving behaviours – and how to avoid them.
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Speeding, which is defined as going above the posted legal speed limit on a road, is involved in around a third of fatal accidents on Australian roads.
Part of the problem with discouraging speeding is that many people interpret ‘speeding’ as high speed driving, underestimating how easy it is for fatal accidents to occur when people exceed even lower range speed limits. People who avoid driving at high speed can therefore assume that lower speeds are safe when accident damage at these speeds can be considerable.
A car travelling at just 60 km/h takes almost 40 meters to come to stop, and any object it impacts before it does will result in a potentially serious accident. Collisions that take place at speeds as low as 30 km/h can be fatal to pedestrians, cyclists or occupants of cars exposed to side-on collisions. Furthermore, a large proportion of fatal accidents involve cars coming off the road and colliding with stationary objects after taking corners too quickly.
To avoid speeding related accidents:
- reduce speed on bends
- reduce speed in poor weather conditions and increase visibility by turning on headlights and hazard lights
- reduce speed at night and in twilight conditions
- reduce speed in areas with pedestrian or livestock activity
- stay within posted speed limits.
2. Driving under the influence
It’s hardly surprising to find that drunk driving is a major cause of death on Australian roads, matching speeding with its involvement in around 30% of all road deaths. Despite many public awareness campaigns around this issue as well as strict policing of drunk driving, many drivers still choose to take the risk of driving under the influence.
The impact of alcohol on driving ability bears repetition. A blood alcohol level as low as 0.04 will affect:
- muscle control
- mood, including increases in impulsivity.
In other words three of the things you need to be able to respond promptly and effectively when exposed to road hazards are impaired, while your urge to engage in risky road behaviours is increased.
After a few more drinks alcohol begins impacting eyesight, including:
- reduced light sensitivity
- blurred vision
- colour impairment
- tunnel vision
- changes in depth perception.
As these changes take place drivers become exponentially more likely to cause a serious car accident. As alcohol levels increase a drunk driver becomes an ever greater threat.
Fortunately we live in the age of ride hailing services, which have made it cheaper and easier than ever to avoid drunk driving.
3. Not wearing seatbelts
Failing to wear seatbelts doesn’t cause fatal accidents, as such. However, it is responsible for fatal injuries in a high proportion of car accidents that would otherwise have been survivable.
People who choose not to wear seatbelts simply don’t understand the forces generated by an accident. Even a collision with a stationary object at 50 km/h generates approximately 150 g of force, which effectively turns an 80 kg person into a 12 tonne projectile on impact. In this collision a a seatbelt would reduce this force to 30 g, reducing the force of impact five-fold.
If that isn’t convincing enough, statistics suggest that you are around 10 times more likely to die in a car accident if you’re not wearing a seatbelt. Individuals who are not wearing seatbelts in head-on collisions at any speed are even more at risk.
Most new cars have automated seatbelt reminders for front seat occupants, which is making it harder to drive without a seatbelt. However, this can create a false sense of security, as the laws of physics also apply to rear seat passengers. So when you buckle up, ensure that everyone around you buckles up too.
Fatigue tends to combine with other factors to cause major accidents. It is believed to play a role in another third of fatal car accidents, and a much higher proportion of fatal accidents involving a single vehicle. And while driving while fatigued is as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol, it much harder to detect, police and prevent than drunk driving.
Another major issue with driving while fatigued is that most people are simply unaware of just how badly their driving and cognitive abilities can be impaired when they are tired.
The impacts of fatigue on driving includes:
- impaired reaction times
- impaired decision making ability
- periods of ‘micro-sleep’ which last a few seconds without the driver being aware of the lapse in focus.
Even if you’re aware that you shouldn’t drive when you are tired, it can be hard to know when this becomes a threat to your safety. Technology to detect drowsiness in drivers is available, but is not a standard feature in new cars. Therefore the best way to avoid becoming a casualty of driving while fatigued is to avoid it the old fashioned way:
- stop for 10-15 minutes every two hours if on a long trip
- drink caffeinated beverages to address low to moderate fatigue
- if you’re feeling sleepy and like you need to take a nap, stop your vehicle and take one. A 20 minute nap can significantly relieve fatigue and improve alertness.
Distracted driving was added to the leading causes of death on Australian roads only recently. While distractions caused by passengers and sound systems have been a problem for a while, the advent of navigation systems and mobile phones has approximately doubled the number of distraction related car accidents and fatalities over the past decade.
The impact of distraction on drivers is relatively straightforward to understand. While they’re not paying to attention to the road drivers can’t respond to anything that happens in front of them.
Mobile phone use is justifiably targeted as a cause of distraction related accidents. However, other seemingly innocuous activities can also lead to a serious accident. These include:
- eating or drinking while driving
- interacting with a car music system
- attempting to retrieve an item from a storage compartment
- attempting to remove an insect from a vehicle
- looking at a passenger while holding a conversation
- distractions caused by pets or young children.
Avoiding this kind of accident is simple. Don’t take your eyes off the road unless your car is stationary and not obstructing traffic. Always make sure any children in your car are restrained by seatbelts and child seats, and when transporting pets, ensure they are restrained or placed in suitable crates or carriers.
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