Inside our hidden road toll

Three ambos walking through field approaching site of accident.

Sue Hewitt

Posted May 08, 2019

For every person who dies on our roads, another 30 are hospitalised.

Take a breath and blink, now open your eyes to find the world you know is gone; forever. You have just joined the ranks of Australia’s hidden road toll victims – those lucky enough to live through a road crash but unlucky enough to survive with ongoing trauma. 

For every fatality on Australian roads, another 30 people are hospitalised. Figures from 2017 show that for the 1227 people who died about 36,000 were seriously hurt, many with life-changing injuries, costing the community billions of dollars a year.

As Australian authorities get better at saving lives on the nation’s roads, the hidden toll of road trauma survivors increases. Elvira Lazar, RACV’s manager of safety and education, says the ratio of injuries to fatalities has doubled over the past decade.

“In 2002, for every person that lost their life, a further 15 were injured,” she says. “Ten years later in 2012, for every person that lost their life, a further 20 were injured.

“The ratio is not improving and in 2017 this climbed to a staggering 30 people being injured for every person that lost their life.”

Victoria’s Transport Accident Commission chief executive officer, Joe Calafiore, says road trauma in Victoria alone cost $1.4 billion in 2017-18.

“Tragically, hundreds of people lose their life on Victoria’s roads and thousands are seriously injured every year; some of those injuries can last a lifetime,” he says. “Receiving a life-long injury like an acquired brain injury or paraplegia can have devastating effects, not just on those injured, but the communities around them.”

It takes milliseconds for a road crash to change your life, as Melbourne mum Tarli Bogtstra knows too well.

It’s been more than a decade since a crash left Tarli in hospital for months with an acquired brain injury and other injuries requiring years of rehabilitation where she had to re-learn such basics as walking. Tarli had to give up her cherished job as a genetic counsellor at a prominent Melbourne hospital because of memory loss which dogs her to this day. 

Emergency services helicopter launching from pad.

Road incidents result in long-lasting trauma to victims and their family and friends left behind. Photos: Meredith O’Shea

The 41-year-old has been robbed of such simple pleasures as eating an apple because of her damaged teeth. Every day, she counts the emotional costs of the crash, which she can’t remember, and its ripple effect on her family and friends. 

“I often think in terms of the old Tarli and the new Tarli, whom I have learnt to accept and make the best of,” she says. “But as hard as it has been for me, the consequences for my family have been huge.”

Living with her husband Omar and primary-school-aged children Freya and Judd in Surrey Hills, Tarli says while she counts her blessings, she knows her medical problems affect her family. She is often fatigued and has to use her diary to remind her of chores or appointments.

“The doctors called me the miracle lady because I wasn’t meant to survive, but I can’t concentrate on anything,” she says.

Tarli says she is now a community educator with NDIS provider Scope Australia, and hopes her story makes people appreciate the urgent need to improve road safety.

Safer roads and vehicles and increased law enforcement have meant fewer road fatalities but more serious injuries, according to Bernadette Nugent, the interim chief executive officer of Road Trauma Support Services Victoria.

“Currently in Victoria, more than 7500 people are seriously injured every year as a result of road trauma, and are often seen as the hidden road toll,” she says.

“In the three months to March this year, the RTSSV had already had 600 referrals for counselling and support services for people affected by road trauma, including people who witness horrific crashes.”

The hidden road toll of those injured in road crashes has reached “epidemic” proportions, according to trauma surgeon Dr John Crozier of Sydney’s Liverpool Hospital. He and Associate Professor Jeremy Woolley, the director of the Centre for Automotive Safety Research at the University of Adelaide, co-chaired the federal government’s inquiry into the National Road Safety Strategy.

They delivered 12 recommendations to the government last September and were critical of the government’s failure to act on any of the recommendations for six months.

The recent federal budget addressed some recommendations including pledging $5.9 million to set up an Office of Road Safety to provide national leadership on road safety measures.

But Dr Crozier calls for an immediate “disaster response” to the epidemic and action on all the inquiry’s recommendations. He says that without dramatic change embedding a road safety philosophy at every level – from car manufacturers, road builders, governments and society in general – the road toll “epidemic” will continue.

Based on current statistics, he says there will be 12,000 fatalities and 360,000 hospital admissions costing the nation $300 billion over the next decade.

The inquiry’s recommendations are supported by the RACV and underline the need for an ongoing commitment to road safety regardless of changes in government, according to Elvira Lazar.

“The 12 recommendations outline what fundamentally needs to occur in order to bring about a significant and long-lasting change and truly turn the trend around and head towards a zero road toll,” she says.

“We need a long-term focus that proactively addresses the root causes of crashes [because] a short-term focus that is frequently revised is not keeping pace with the size of the issue that needs to be tackled.

“The RACV encourages the government to address the entire system and elevate other priorities such as getting drivers into safer cars, which will have a significant impact on the outcome of crashes.”


Emergency summit on road toll

RACV will take part in an emergency summit on this year’s horror road toll, with 114 killed on the roads compared with 76 at this time last year. Eighteen of those killed so far were not wearing seatbelts, and Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Stephen Leane says a “significant number” of them could have been saved if they had belted up.

The summit will be held on May 31 and bring together experts from RACV, the Transport Accident Commission, VicRoads, Victoria Police, Monash University Accident Research Centre, Road Trauma Support Services Victoria and motorcycle and cycling advocates.