Let’s tackle rural road trauma head on

Ever since cars became a part of everyday life about 100 years ago, we’ve had to contend with the fact that, along with their convenience, they wreak havoc in people’s lives.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on our rural and regional roads.

Although in Australia only 25 per cent of the population lives outside metropolitan areas, last year more than 60 per cent of fatalities occurred on country roads. 

Many of those killed or injured are in the prime of their lives, with under 30s being the single largest group represented.

For every death on our roads there’s about 20 serious injuries. These can have devastating, life-long consequences, and incur enormous costs to the community. 

So why is it more dangerous to drive on country roads? Steady advances in both road construction and vehicle design and safety mean that we routinely drive on rural roads at speeds in excess of 100kph. 

While we travel at these speeds to make commuting bearable and travel worthwhile, it means less “tolerance” when things go wrong, such as driver distraction. So, drivers on rural roads shoulder unfair levels of road trauma burden.

Country drivers also contend with unpredictable wildlife, lower quality roads and a number of other factors that make driving more dangerous. Country road conditions and users are different; so we need to take a different approach to driver education and behaviour, law-making, engineering of cars and roads, amongst other factors.

Doesn’t it make sense to consult communities themselves about this issue? That’s what La Trobe University is proposing to do, by establishing a rural road trauma research hub at its Bendigo campus. 

Experts across several disciplines including health, engineering, law, science, education, psychology, and planning, would work with rural communities to co-design and evaluate strategies to tackle the problem where it is located. These solutions would be evidenced based, and – because they are designed by regional based researchers, working in partnership with regional communities – be more likely to work than approaches developed so far.

Rural road trauma is the last big frontier when it comes to road safety. We need to be creative and innovative to tap into the strengths of our rural communities to bring about change. That’s the only way we can tackle this wicked problem, that each year leaves too many rural lives lost and many more irreparably damaged.

Professor Pamela Snow is the head of the Rural Health School at La Trobe University.