16 July, 2020

COVID-19 restrictions have meant that we are driving less with positive impacts on road fatalities across the country.

Now that we are through what we hope to have been the most restrictive period in the Australian national response to COVID-19, it is timely to investigate how road fatalities may have been impacted throughout the pandemic. In April we released an early report on road fatalities in Australia, examining how fatalities were impacted in the last few weeks of March and the Easter weekend when Australian social distancing measures were first introduced. We concluded that reduced travel had resulted in fewer road fatalities over this period, you can read about this here.

The Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE) daily national fatality data is now available to the end of June 2020, which includes the most restrictive period of the COVID-19 response to date. With this data, we are now able to examine broader road fatality trends and compare those with historical trends, and the experiences of other nations.

The chart below compares 2019/2020 cumulative national road fatalities for the period 1 Jan to 30 June this year. There have been 16% fewer fatalities in 2020 than over the same period in the previous year. As at the end of June, 85 fewer road fatalities had occurred than at the same time last year. At the current value of a statistical life used in transport project appraisals, the reduction in fatalities in the first six months of 2020 has saved the community around $644 million.

However, not only are road fatalities lower than last year, 2020 saw the lowest number of fatalities recorded over the period 1 Jan – 30 June in the past decade, as shown in the chart below. The chart also shows that Australia has seen a declining trend in road fatalities over the past decade, despite increasing traffic volumes due to road and vehicle safety improvements. This suggests that perhaps even without the impact of COVID-19 we may have recorded fewer road fatalities this year.

Australian historical trends show us that busier roads do not always mean more road fatalities, and therefore we cannot simply assume that quieter roads will always mean reduced fatalities. However, it is logical to assume that at least some proportion of the reduction in road fatalities over this period can be attributed to fewer cars on the road. This has been reflected in Apple’s daily mobility data over the period which monitors requests for directions in Apple Maps, and in TfNSW’s Traffic Volume Viewer, which provides data from various traffic collection stations across New South Wales.

In Australia in April 2020, the average number of direction requests made in Apple Maps was nearly 50% fewer than those made in February, which we have chosen to represent a typical month in Australia. Key roads in NSW show a significant reduction in traffic volumes in April this year compared to last year. The M31 Hume Highway, a key freight route running through NSW saw approximately a 49% decline in traffic North and Southbound in April 2020 when compared to April 2019. Similarly, the M1 Sydney Harbour Tunnel saw a 46% decline in traffic volume in April 2020, when compared to 2019 volumes. This suggests that Australian roads were subject to half the normal traffic volume.
To test the theory that quieter roads will mean fewer fatalities, we compared this to the number of road fatalities recorded in April (79), and found these to be just 17% less than in February this year (95), and 19% less than April 2019 (97), despite there being significantly fewer cars on the road.

It is interesting to compare the experience of Australia with that of New Zealand. New Zealand had a similar COVID-19 timeline to Australia, in that both countries were in various stages of complete lockdown from the end of March until the beginning of May. However, New Zealand’s COVID-19 response was more restrictive than Australia’s. New Zealand imposed a “Level-4” lockdown from 25th March to 27th April. During this period, people were instructed to stay home other than for essential movements. All businesses were closed apart from essential services, and no hot food delivery services were available during this period. Australia saw similar, but lighter limits imposed over the same period. During this time, social distancing was enforced, and most non-essential services were closed. However, unlike New Zealand this closure did not include business operations such as construction, manufacturing, and some retail categories.
The stricter movement restrictions enforced by New Zealand are reflected in Apple’s mobility data. The average number of direction requests made in Apple Maps during April in New Zealand was 70% fewer than those made in February. The chart below maps driving mobility trends in Australia and New Zealand from 1 February to June 30 this year. You can see the impact of lockdown reflected in the significant decline in driving activity in both countries from the end of March through to May.

 

Like our approach to analysing Australia, we compared New Zealand’s driving activity with road fatality data released by New Zealand’s Ministry of Transport. In April this year, New Zealand reported 9 road fatalities, which is 72% fewer fatalities than the 32 reported in February. This means that, as a percentage, both New Zealand’s mobility data and road fatalities saw approximately a 70% decline in April compared to February, and an 80% decline compared to April 2019. Does this mean that to achieve significantly reduced road fatalities we need to see substantial reductions in traffic volumes?

Maybe, but then again, maybe not. Obviously, if there were no vehicles on the road there would be zero road fatalities, and therefore reducing the number of vehicles on the road reduces the chance of fatal crashes in the first place. However, as we wrote in our last article, road crashes fluctuate and are influenced by a variety of factors in addition to traffic volumes, and this is reflected in the experiences of Australia and New Zealand, and in the historical data presented in the chart above. While both countries saw a reduction in road use and road fatalities during April, the reductions are inconsistent. While reduced movement was one of the more significant outcomes of responses to COVID-19, increased alcohol and drug consumption, higher vehicle speeds due to reduced traffic, increased deliveries, among other factors could also have impacted road fatalities during this period.

Perhaps the takeaway from this should be that the impact of COVID-19 in reducing road fatalities over the past couple of months has been at least one positive outcome of a rather unfortunate situation.

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