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The ‘fatal five’ causes of road trauma: who’s in control?

The makers of GPS devices are among the many factors and actors whose role in road safety has not been fully considered. flickr/Schu, CC BY-NC-SA

The ‘fatal five’ causes of road trauma: who’s in control?

The makers of GPS devices are among the many factors and actors whose role in road safety has not been fully considered. flickr/Schu, CC BY-NC-SA

Despite significant progress, road transport systems continue to kill people on a scale that is comparable to cancers, cardiovascular disease and respiratory diseases.

In Australian states such as Queensland, the focus is on reducing the “fatal five” behaviours that cause road trauma: speeding, drink and drug driving, not wearing seatbelts, fatigue and driving while distracted.

Alongside this, road safety strategy calls for a shared responsibility for road safety that spans many stakeholders. They include road users, road and vehicle designers, policymakers, advocacy groups, road safety authorities and government.

While this is a step in the right direction, it is not entirely clear who shares this responsibility, or what the responsibilities are. Given contemporary accident models, which argue that accidents are caused by a loss of control between actors and organisations across levels of a system, it seems pertinent to clarify two questions:

  • Who is in the road transport system (and thus shares the responsibility for road safety)?

  • What control measures do different actors and organisations enact in pursuit of road safety?

If there are shared responsibilities, what do these entail? As part of a program of research that involves applying new systems thinking models and methods in road transport, we built a control structure model of the Queensland road transport system to answer these questions.

Based on control theory, this type of model argues that the behaviour of complex systems is managed through control and feedback loops. Controls are constraints imposed by actors and organisations at higher levels on the behaviour of those below. Feedback loops provide information about the impact of the controls at the lower levels, enabling decision-makers to evaluate and adapt control strategies over time.

What does the model reveal?

We have reviewed and amended the model based on feedback from almost 50 experts in road safety and systems thinking. The initial findings are compelling.

The model shows the actors and organisations within the Queensland road transport system along with the control and feedback relationships between them. These actors and organisations span six levels: the road environment; local management and supervision; operational delivery and management; government agencies, industry associations, user groups, insurance companies and the courts; parliament and legislatures; and international influences.

The model gives an indication of the breadth of intertwined actors and organisations who share responsibility for road safety. The usual suspects are in there; however, there are many others that may not typically be thought of as playing a role in road safety. They include the media, manufacturers of devices such as mobile phones and in-vehicle GPS devices, organisations employing drivers, insurers, schools, parents and local council officers.

The forms of control adopted are interesting. These include managerial (such as resource allocation), organisational (such as policies and procedures), physical (such as signage and signals) and manufacturing-based controls (such as standards). Forms of control vary widely depending on which level of the road system you look at, which is similar to other safety-critical systems.

Another interesting thing to note is the relative strength of the controls. These can be weaker in comparison to other transportation domains such as aviation and rail transport. Consequently, there is more latitude for behaviour, and a range of societal influences readily affect the choices that drivers make.

It is more difficult to enforce the rules on drugs and alcohol on the roads than in aviation. AAP/Julian Smith

For example, controls around impairment by drugs and alcohol are stronger in aviation, where pilots have to comply with strictly enforced rules on drug and alcohol consumption. Although road users are bound by similar rules, the nature of road transport systems is such that the rules cannot be so consistently enforced. Alcohol and drug testing in road transport systems will never achieve the same coverage and impact as it does in aviation systems.

The same can be said for controls around other fatal five behaviours such as fatigue and distraction, exacerbated by there being no accepted test (unlike blood alcohol testing) for these performance impairments.

A challenge for the road safety community is to strengthen the controls enacted on road users while ensuring they are practical to enact. This will likely involve developing new forms of control, rather than simply increasing the frequency with which current controls are applied.

In addition, the impact of wider societal influences on driver behaviour should be considered and exploited when developing controls.

Knowledge gaps compromise safety

Finally, the model raises questions about our current understanding of road traffic crashes. If road transport systems are so large and complex, comprising multiple actors and organisations tightly bound together by control relationships and feedback loops, then surely there are more factors that contribute to crashes? The model suggests that interactions not typically considered in road crash data analysis can play a role in creating or enabling the fatal five behaviours.

When, for example, will we consider mobile phone and vehicle designers and related standards as contributing to crashes involving drivers distracted by a mobile phone? Similarly, the causal chain in work-related driving crashes likely extends up to managers, chief executives, policymakers and ministers.

The current focus is on driver-, vehicle- and road environment-related factors. According to our model, this leaves a significant gap in the knowledge base.

On a positive note, the model also shows a diverse group is involved in attempting to minimise road trauma, and many control and feedback loops have been implemented. These are the hallmarks of safe systems.

The efforts of the road safety community should be applauded; we should not forget the significant and tangible impact that has been achieved to date.

There is still work to be done. It may be that, as well as focusing our efforts on improving road user behaviour on the front line, we should consider how to optimise other levels in road transport systems. We have spent a great deal of time focusing on the controlled; it may be time to focus on the controllers.


Paul will be taking part in an Ask An Expert Q&A on Twitter from 4 and 5pm on Wednesday, October 21. Head over to Twitter and post your questions about road safety using #AskAnExpert.