Time for a road trip!

by | Dec 27, 2011 | data, mortality, road safety

Today is the fifth day of the 2011-12 Christmas holiday road toll period¹ and it is hard to open a newspaper or news website without being informed that so far 18 people have lost their lives on Australian roads since last Friday. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), road traffic accidents amount to over 1.3 million deaths per year, and injure in excess of 50 million people. They are the biggest killer of people aged 15 to 39 worldwide, and ranked around 9th overall². Worst of all, these figures are expected to increase over the coming years, mostly due to the growing access to vehicles in the developing world*. These facts make road safety a worthwhile focus of media attention. What makes less sense is the misleading obsession which the media has on the holiday periods.

By focusing so overtly on the Easter³ and Christmas periods, it is assumed by the public that they claim more lives than other times. Headlines speak of the climbing toll, morbidly focusing on every death recorded during the period. They even include a state by (vs.) state tally, and each police jurisdiction either congratulates their constituents, or shows their disappointment, depending on how their stats is faring. What they rarely report, however, is that the holiday periods are nothing special. If anything, the Easter and Christmas periods claim less lives than similar periods throughout the year.

Based on data published by the Department of Infrastructure and Transport 4 (Commonwealth level), the Christmas/New Year holiday period claims an average of 67 lives per year (since 1989, which is the earliest freely available data). The average for a similar period throughout the year is 70. Similarly, the Easter period claims an average of 22 lives per year, while 24 die on similarly lengthed periods the rest of the year. Christmas day itself falls in the lowest 5% of days in terms of deaths, in the period 1989-2010.

The month of December does appear to be slightly more deadly than the rest of the year, but surprisingly it is the period before Christmas which makes it so. By the time we first hear about the Christmas road toll, the worst has passed. Similarly, March is worse than April, meaning the Easter reminder comes too late.

The calendar below shows the average number of road fatalities for each day of the year, for the period 1989-2010. The cells are colour coded, with green having the smallest number of deaths and red being the deadliest.

Unfortunately, the road toll is devastating every week, not just when the media decides to focus on it. During the last two decades, an average of 34 people died on Australian roads every week. Most of the accidents which claimed lives occurred during the weekends. Saturdays claim 63% more lives than Mondays and Tuesdays. Fridays and Sundays aren’t far behind. If the media (and law enforcement agencies) want to focus their attention on a particular period (double demerit points, increased breathalysers, etc. etc.) then perhaps every weekend is as good as the others. This would send the message that the roads are dangerous throughout the year, not just on holidays.

NB: As the numbers represent the average from 1989 to 2010, the day of the week they land on changes from year to year. For presentation purposes, this calendar is based on the 2010 layout, with the 29th February added for completeness.

Dataset available upon request.

* Conversely, one could argue that since the trend is due to expanding access to motorised vehicles, a growing road tally in the developing world is a horrible side effect of great progress, bringing with it increased freedom of movement, greater access to trading routes, and generally higher quality of life.

1. Christmas/New Year holiday period begins at 00:01 on the last Friday before December 25, and ends at 23:59 on the first Friday after December 31.
2. http://whqlibdoc.who.int/publications/2009/9789241563840_eng.pdf
3. Easter holiday period begins at 00:01 on Easter Thursday and ends at 23:59 on Easter Monday. 
4. http://www.infrastructure.gov.au/roads/safety/road_fatality_statistics/index.aspx