29 April, 2020

Less travel means fewer road fatalities

Federal and State Governments have imposed measures to contain the spread of the virus. Non-essential services are closed, and we have been told to stay home and avoid gatherings of people. The restrictions imposed as a result of COVID-19 present an interesting context for examining road fatalities in Australia. Reducing road trauma is always a high priority for Governments. Road crashes are the second-biggest killer of Australians aged between 15 and 24.

These restrictions have been increasingly enforced since 21 March, and today there only a limited number of legitimate reasons people can leave home. Given there are fewer places we can go, it is not surprising that there are fewer cars on Australia’s roads. Mobility data released by Apple reveals that there has been a 42% reduction in driving across Australia since 13 January 2020.

The reduction in driving is reflected in our congestion levels. As Australia’s most populous cities, Melbourne and Sydney normally have some of the busiest roads in the country and are the most delay-affected in peak periods. However, a quick glance at Google Maps and TomTom traffic monitors over the past couple of weeks would suggest otherwise. A car driving home from work in Melbourne on a Thursday at 5pm would typically experience medium to high levels of traffic congestion, whereas recently live congestion has been down nearly 30% from average congestion at this time.

The Bureau of infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE) road fatality data provides an early indication of the impact of Federal Government COVID-19 measures on road safety. In March 2020 there were 15 fewer fatalities on our roads compared to March last year. Fatalities were also reduced in the 10-days following social distancing measures being imposed on 21 March, resulting in a downward sloping trend across the entire month. Fatalities decreased from an average of 4 per day in the first 20 days of the month, to an average of 3 per day between 21st and 31st of the month. While road crashes fluctuate and are influenced by a variety of factors in addition to traffic volumes, these figures may indicate the start of a positive change in road safety as a result of COVID-19.

While BITRE releases national road safety data monthly, some states release their own data more frequently. The year-to-date data released by NSW, QLD, SA, VIC and WA may provide an early guide to the impact that COVID-19 may be having on road fatalities more broadly. Apart from QLD, each of these States has had fewer fatalities when compared to last year.

The Easter long weekend is typically one of the most dangerous periods on Australian roads. Last year there were 19 road fatalities over the four-day period across Australia. While normally these fatalities reflect increased traffic and movement as people travel for holidays, this year under the conditions of the pandemic the message to stay home was abundantly clear. Police patrolled roads and borders to restrict movement and fines were imposed on those not following regulations. While complete data has not yet been published for this period, provisional data indicates that this Easter weekend saw significantly reduced fatalities when compared to last year, with a number of states recording no fatalities over the four-day period.

Hopefully this trend will continue as we return from quarantine and self isolation. Unfortunately, the data does not suggest that this will be the case.

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