August is Rural Road Safety Month, so we’re taking a closer look at what is happening on country roads. While only 16.5% of Australians live in rural areas, deaths on rural roads account for a staggering 65% of the national road toll. This statistic does not take into account crashes that take place on private property, such as farms, meaning that the true toll is even higher. So, what is happening on rural roads that makes them so dangerous?
Are poorly maintained roads to blame?
What about animals running into traffic?
Are there just more road obstacles in general in country areas?
While these are all factors that rural drivers must contend with, the true causes of this higher fatality rate have more to do with attitudes than with road hazards. 20% of drivers admit that they take risks on rural roads that they simply don’t take while driving in metropolitan areas. The most common reason – the perception that they won’t get caught.
But with such high fatality rates, getting caught is clearly not the worst thing that can happen.
Part of the problem relates to risk perception. According to the Australian Road Safety Foundation, nearly half of all metro drivers and about a third of rural drivers wrongly believe that more fatal crashes occur in metro areas than in rural areas. This provides a rationale for taking increased risks on rural roads; speeding, driving while tired and drink driving being the most common risky behaviours drivers say they are more likely to engage in while driving in the country. As such, it comes as no great surprise that speeding, fatigue and drink driving are the main causes of death on rural roads.
But it’s not just rural Australians who are at risk. The spike that we see in the road toll during holiday periods takes place when many metro citizens are driving long distances on unfamiliar roads to get to and from their holiday destination. If half of those drivers believe that crash risk is lower than it is when they’re at home, and one in five admit to taking additional risks around speeding, fatigue and drink driving on rural roads (“admit” being the keyword there), it is almost inevitable that road deaths will shoot up during the holidays. In the end, this is not just a rural problem – this is an Australia problem.
The question is, what can we do about it? The go-to answer is to increase police presence on rural roads and introduce harsher penalties. Simple. That would correct the misconception that there is less chance of being caught, but it wouldn’t address the real issue.
The real issue is not that taking risks on the road might get you caught, but that it might get you killed. Risky driving could lead to the death of someone you love. It could lead to death of someone you don’t know, and the lifelong guilt that comes from taking a life before it’s time. Taking increased risks on rural roads could lead to a permanent injury for you or someone else – these are the real reasons not to speed, not to drink drive and not to ignore the warning signs of fatigue.
In a legalistic nation such as Australia, keeping track of and complying with the rules is an important part of social functioning. But the law is only there to prevent unnecessary deaths; it’s not the be-all-and-end-all when it comes to behavioural regulation. As long as drivers are more concerned about losing their licence than losing their life, we are likely to see tragic results. Our focus should therefore be on educating people to model risk accurately and to use this information to preserve lives, including their own, when driving in rural areas.
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