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No Locking Down the Road Toll in 2020

It’s National Road Safety Week and we’re looking at exactly what happened to the road toll in this strange year of lockdowns and border closures.

At first glance it would appear the road toll has fallen from the previous year, as one might expect given that traffic volumes dropped by as much as 50% during lockdown.

But there are a couple of problems with this.

Firstly, a 7.3% reduction in the overall road toll, while welcome, is not a great cause for celebration in a year where road traffic dropped to volumes not seen since the 1950s.

Had 2020 been a normal year, a 7.3% reduction might mean we’re on track to meet our targets. In reality, while the number of drivers on the road dropped sharply during CO-VID, risky driving increased by such an extent as to almost entirely negate the safety benefits of driving on near empty roads.

According to research from the Australian Road Safety Foundation, one in four drivers admit to taking increased driving risks during CO-VID. Given the high social desirability bias inherent in the question (i.e. people don’t like admitting illegal behaviour to researchers) this statistic is likely to be underreported, so the actual rate is probably even higher.

The main reasons given? The perception that drivers are less likely to be subjected to law enforcement, or be involved in a crash, due to the decreased volume of traffic.

Secondly, while fatalities have fallen across other road user groups by between 5% and 12%, fatalities amongst cyclists have risen by more than 20% during the pandemic. While this is a function of the large number of people who took up cycling during the year, the actual causes of these crashes are painfully familiar; speeding, intoxication, distraction, fatigue – preventable human factors.

So even if governments were to build more roads, wider roads, safer roads with less cars on them, would it help much? With traffic volumes dropping to their lowest levels for decades during lockdown, with large numbers of people exchanging their cars for pushbikes and pavements, shouldn’t the road toll have plummeted also?

What does it say that it hasn’t?

The uncomfortable truth is that, when presented with an apparently safer and less regulated traffic environment, at least a quarter of drivers are inclined to increase their risk-taking to match. As such, unless accompanied by improved social attitudes towards low-risk driving practices, and robust law enforcement, making infrastructure substantially safer may fail to make the road toll substantially lower.


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