The roads know no date

The roads know no date

By the time the Christmas Holiday Road Toll counter begins, the worst is all but over. For many, unfortunately, the reminders of the roads’ dangers come too late.

Every year the Australian media and Police and Roads Departments produce an hour by hour, day by day counter of the road fatalities occurring during the festive season. News bulletins focus on yet another untimely death, and end of year best wishes are accompanied by a “stay safe on the roads” message.

It has almost become a new Hallmark theme, alongside “It’s a boy”, “Get Well soon”, and “I might not want to personally join such an outdated and discriminative institution, but I respect your right to do so, even if many aren’t yet afforded that right”¹.

Whilst road fatalities are a serious issue deserving of media attention, the Christmas period is not news worthy. In fact, the focus might incorrectly imply that the rest of the year is less dangerous, and therefore less deserving of our vigilance.

Road Toll Graph

Based on figures from 1989-2014 from the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics’ (BITRE), the Xmas Toll period (which this year runs from the 23rd December to the 3rd January) has a lower road fatality average than the rest of the year².

The graph above compares each day in December through to mid-January to the average death rate for the entire year. These figures are based on data in the 1989-2014 period, for which the average is 4.7 road fatalities per day.  The red areas denote a day where there are more deaths on the road than average, and grey areas denote smaller number of casualties.

Other than a small spike on Boxing and New Year’s Day, the rest of the Xmas Road Toll Period is remarkably below average.

Unlike the Festive period, the weeks just prior to it do seem more dangerous than average. On average, 110 people will die on the roads in the first 3 weeks of December every year. This is more than in any other 3 week continuous period during the year.

Newspapers are not entirely unaware of the numbers. In fact they usually publish an article or two every year showing how misleading these tolls are (example ³). Yet they continue to misguide the community and create panic by perpetuating the myth.

The question is how we focus our educational and advertising campaigns to have the greatest impact.  I doubt Christmas is the answer. It rarely is.


[1] This comment is source-less, and potentially misleading.



Time for a road trip!

Time for a road trip!

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.
3. Easter holiday period begins at 00:01 on Easter Thursday and ends at 23:59 on Easter Monday.