1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2001  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 25/01/2001   
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This article appeared originally in 1998 as Monograph 23 by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau. It has been updated to include more recent data.


Road crashes are a major cause of death and injury in Australia, and incur costs estimated to be in excess of $15b annually. Some 164,190 lives have been lost overall since road crash death records commenced in 1925, almost double the aggregate death toll of Australians killed in the four major wars in which this country has been involved (89,850 deaths). While this is a cause for concern to all Australians, it is worth noting what has been achieved to date in combating the problem.


Between 1925 and 1970 there was a consistent increase in the number of road fatalities, other than in periods during the Great Depression and Second World War. In 1970 there were 3,798 road fatalities, representing 30.4 fatalities per 100,000 persons or 8 per 10,000 registered vehicles. Since then the number of fatalities per year has declined significantly, especially over the 1980s and 1990s (graph 23.21). In 1999 the number of road fatalities had decreased to less than half the 1970 rate (1,761), representing 9.5 per 100,000 persons (graph 23.22) or 1.4 per 10,000 registered vehicles (graph 23.23).

This decline cannot be attributed to a reduction in the distance travelled by vehicles, which has remained fairly steady since 1971, when each vehicle travelled an average of 15,900 km. In 1999, each vehicle travelled an average of 15,800 km.

Today there exists a high degree of community awareness about road safety, whereas road safety matters were not a major consideration in the days of an emerging new transport technology.


Major contributions to this turnaround have come from improvements to roads and vehicles, enactment of road safety legislation, intensive public education and enhanced police enforcement technology. The following are some key developments.


The application of Australian Design Rules for Motor Vehicle Safety has been the mechanism for implementing a host of mandatory safety requirements. These include:
  • the mandatory fitting of seat belts in new passenger vehicles (from 1 January 1970);
  • the progressive extension of seat belts to other motor vehicles and the use of retractable belts;
  • anchorages for child restraints;
  • improved vehicle brakes, tyres, lights, indicators and glazing, head restraints and impact resistance;
  • increased roll-over strength and occupant protection in buses; and
  • the fitting of speed limiters on heavy vehicles.


By 1973, legislation had been passed in all Australian States and Territories for compulsory wearing of fitted seat belts in motor vehicles and the wearing of protective helmets by motor cycle riders and their pillion passengers.

Legislation for random breath testing was progressively introduced nationwide, firstly by Victoria (1976), followed by the Northern Territory (1980), South Australia (1981), New South Wales and the ACT (1982), Tasmania (1983) and Queensland and Western Australia (1988). Since its introduction, random breath testing has been intensified and refined to be one of the most extensive programs for mass breath testing of drivers worldwide. Commencing with South Australia in 1973, a number of States and Territories have also legislated for compulsory blood testing on crash participants who attend hospital.

A range of complementary measures has also been put in place, including:
  • nationally consistent 0.05 driver blood alcohol limits;
  • zero blood alcohol limits for special driver groups;
  • a well structured system of penalties; and
  • mass public education and media campaigns.

Attitudinal change has seen drink driving become largely unacceptable within the general Australian population.

In 1990, Victoria made wearing of bicycle helmets compulsory, with the other States and Territories following through 1991 and 1992. At that time no other country had compulsory wearing of bicycle helmets.


Enforcement technology, such as speed cameras, has made a major impact since being introduced in the late 1980s, first in Victoria and later in most other jurisdictions. Other innovations include laser based speed measuring devices and red light cameras.


Australia's roads are today considered to be significantly safer than in the past. The Commonwealth Government's Black Spots programs have encouraged individuals and groups to nominate dangerous sections of road for specific improvement.

Commonwealth funding has seen major upgrading of the National Highway. Other roads have been the target of considerable work by State and local governments in shoulder sealing, use of audible edge-lining and other delineation treatments, removal of roadside hazards and improved speed zoning.


All levels of government in Australia are heavily committed to reducing further the number and severity of road crashes and improving the efficiency of the road network. The turnaround that has been achieved in Australia's road safety performance since 1970 has highlighted the effectiveness of a resolute, coordinated approach by government.

Notwithstanding the progress attained so far, much remains to be achieved. Recent work2 has suggested that a reduction to 860 annual road fatalities is potentially achievable by the year 2020. The Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments recently agreed to set a target of no more than 1,600 annual road crash deaths by the year 2005. While no level of crash death or injury is acceptable, this target is intended to focus efforts over the next few years.

Road safety stakeholders have already set down a detailed road safety strategy and implementation plan3 for the immediate years ahead. This sets out a detailed plan of coordinated policies and legislation supported by enforcement, community involvement and public education activities.


1 Bureau of Transport Economics 2000, Road Crash Costs in Australia. Report 102.
2 Vulcan, P. 1997, Predicting road fatalities for 2001 and beyond. Paper presented to the Road Safety Research and Enforcement Conference, Hobart, November 1997.
3 National Road Safety Strategy and Action Plan 1996, published by the Federal Office of Road Safety on behalf of the National Road Safety Implementation Task Force.