Why is Victoria’s road death toll on the rise?

Desolate road with emergency vehicle in the distance.

Peter Wilmoth

Posted January 24, 2020

Victoria's road toll in 2019 was the highest in three years. What went wrong?

On 14 December 1991 Tanya Suhr, a 19-year-old visual arts student at Melbourne University, was a passenger in a car being driven by her boyfriend’s brother. They were heading through Chirnside Park in Melbourne’s north-east towards his parents’ house when they were hit by another vehicle. The car Tanya was in was split in half.

Four hours later Tanya’s brother Paul and their mother Jeanette were at home in Boronia when the doorbell rang. It was 12.30am. Paul called out words no parent wants to hear: “Mum, there’s two policemen at the door.”  The news delivered that day changed a family’s life forever.  

The pain of losing her daughter never leaves Jeanette. She still occasionally catches up for lunch with Tanya’s best friend. “We still talk about Tanya as if she were here,” says Jeanette. “Her friend has a little girl. I sometimes think that if it hadn’t happened Tanya might have got married and had children. I sometimes reflect on that.”

Losing a child changes a person in fundamental ways. “Your hopes and dreams are gone,” says Jeanette. “You learn to change your thinking. My husband and I had always talked about how lucky we were, but we became afraid to hope. Today we take life as it comes. You find a new normal.” 

Increasing road deaths taking their toll

Jeanette is far from alone in her grief. At a time when both cars and roads are safer than they have ever been, the number of people killed on Victoria’s roads spiked in 2019 to 263 – 50 more than the previous year. (Although road deaths eased in the second half of 2019, the annual toll was still the highest since 2016.)

The death toll came as a shocking reality check after decades of fairly constant decline in road fatalities. In 1970, the year compulsory seatbelts were introduced, 1061 people died on Victorian roads. By 2018, despite a threefold increase in registered motor vehicles, the number of people killed had dropped to 213, the lowest since records began. But early last year road deaths began to climb. By early May the road toll was 50 per cent higher than for the same period in 2018. 

The usual fatalism that sadly accompanies road toll reports turned to shock. The state government called a road safety summit bringing together Victoria Police, the Transport Accident Commission, VicRoads, RACV and other experts to address the emerging crisis. Next came a series of eight regional community forums across the state to try to understand why country drivers and country roads are so heavily represented in the death toll (around 50 per cent of fatal crashes involve country drivers on regional roads). 

Then, in July, the government announced a parliamentary inquiry to consider, among other things, the adequacy of current drug and alcohol testing, the impact of smart phones on driver distraction, speed management and enforcement and the role of road standards and maintenance. 

The experts agree that all those elements: – drugs and alcohol, driver distraction, speed and road conditions – play a role in road deaths, but they are at a loss to explain the sudden spike, let alone how to ensure it never happens again. 

TAC’s Lead Director Road Safety Samantha Cockfield says it is not unexpected to see spikes and troughs when looking at the road toll over time and that the underlying reasons for the majority of fatal crashes are quite well understood. “We know how the crashes are happening and on the whole why,” she says. “We also know the actions we to need to take to address most of the fatalities on Victorian roads. But we’re not perfect. We don’t yet have all the answers and must continue to invest in ways of tackling the problem.” 

People will always make mistakes, but a mistake shouldn’t cost someone their life... So why do so many people accept death on our roads as inevitable?

What does seem beyond doubt is that there is no room for complacency. “People will always make mistakes, but a mistake shouldn’t cost someone their life,” says Emily McLean, RACV’s senior engineer of roads and traffic. She notes that in the workplace, fatalities and serious injuries are not considered an acceptable cost of doing business. “So why do so many people accept death on our roads as inevitable?”  

Emily has spearheaded the RACV’s submission to the parliamentary inquiry, calling for an urgent review of speed limits on country roads, where so many fatal crashes occur, and for upgrades to safety infrastructure on major highways and other high-traffic roads. 

“Simple and affordable measures can help make our roads safer,” Emily says. “In country areas, this means rumble strips on the edge of the lane to prevent run-off road crashes, sealed shoulders to allow time for a driver to recover if they do leave their lane, and wire-rope barriers along the centre and side of roads to prevent them hitting a tree, pole or another vehicle.”

This year the government has announced plans to install 1600 kilometres of rumble strip line-markings and 340 kilometres of new safety barriers on the state’s roads, adding to the more than 2300 kilometres of safety barriers already installed. But while the government says these measures have had a dramatic impact, more than halving the number of fatalities and serious injuries on stretches where they are in place, Emily McLean says it is simply not viable to upgrade every kilometre of secondary road across the state. 

 “At the current rate of funding we estimate it would take over 1000 years to upgrade every road to an acceptable safety standard – or we could act immediately to make roads safer by reviewing speed limits.” 


Nurse standing in dark hospital room near bed.

Dr Helen Sergiou has seen the lives of many teenagers slip away. Photo: Shannon Morris

Is slowing down the answer?

The RACV’s parliamentary inquiry submission calls for an urgent review of speed limits across the state, starting with low-traffic secondary roads with 100kmh speed limits. “That’s where people are dying,” says Emily. “In many instances it’s just not possible to drive safely at 100kmh on these roads, yet they have the same speed limit as the Geelong Ring Road which is sealed, divided and with multiple lanes in each direction.” 

Higher speed limits, she says, should be applied only when a road is safe enough to allow it. “We know people need to get around, and safe roads with higher speed limits are critical on important routes. But in other areas we need to review whether the speed limits are correct. Just because a road has always had a certain limit doesn’t mean it’s a safe speed for that road.”   

While rethinking speed limits has huge potential to reduce both the number of crashes and the severity of injuries when crashes do occur, Emily says speed is just one aspect of a four-pronged approach needed to save lives. “We need not just safer speeds and safer roads, but also safer cars and, crucially, safer drivers.”  

Driver attitudes and behaviour are the wild card in the road toll crisis, especially as many of us tend to overestimate our driving ability. “We think we can go a little bit faster, quickly check a map on the phone, have a little bit to drink, and that [a crash] won’t happen to us,” says Emily. “But it does happen to ordinary people every day.” 

And some seem to court disaster. Despite almost universal awareness of the dangers of drink driving and not wearing a seatbelt, alcohol is a factor in about 17 per cent of fatal crashes, and more than one in four vehicle occupants killed on our roads in 2018 was not wearing a seatbelt.  

And now new threats are emerging – chief among them our addiction to mobile phones, which we use for navigating, playing music and a multitude of functions that might tempt us to take our eyes off the road for one fatal moment.  

Minister for Roads, Road Safety and TAC, Jaala Pulford, has described mobile phone distraction as “the drink driving of this generation”.  


Woman holds picture frame of deceased loved one.

Jeanette Suhr has had to try to find "a new normal" following the death of her 19-year-old daughter, Tanya, in a car crash. Photo: Shannon Morris

Why are young drivers at increased crash risk?

While government figures show driver distraction and fatigue were a factor in around one in five fatal crashes last year, the TAC’s Samantha Cockfield says about a third of Victorian drivers admit to having used their phone while driving, and one in 10 say they’ve texted while at the wheel. 

Young people, says Samantha, are particularly vulnerable. “The younger you are, the less likely you are to think using your phone is a highly risky thing to do.”  

Indeed young drivers are overrepresented in the death toll, with 18 to 25-year-olds accounting for almost a quarter of drivers killed over the past 10 years. But there’s also a problem at the other end of the age spectrum: TAC statistics show that drivers over the age of 75 have a greater chance of dying in a crash than any other age group. 

Factors such as frailty, reduced vision and slower reaction times associated with age undoubtedly play a part in those figures, but former Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Road Safety Stephen Leane (now Road Safety Camera Commissioner) points out that both older and younger people are also more likely to drive older, less safe cars which lack the latest life-saving features such as side airbags, ABS brakes, automatic braking and lane assist. 

“Many of those who lost their lives were driving older cars,” he says. “So, while it may not be something they really want to do, we encourage people over 65 to invest in a more modern, safer car.” 

What is the biggest road policing challenge for the next decade?

But if there’s one thing that keeps Stephen awake at night, it’s the growing problem of drug driving, which he has described as “the road policing challenge for the next decade”. 

He says drivers involved in a fatal crash are now more likely to have drugs in their system than alcohol – not surprising given a driver under the influence of methamphetamines is 18 to 200 times more likely to crash (compared to five to seven times more likely for a driver with a blood alcohol level of 0.05 to 0.1). 

And so the tragedies continue. What is news for one day for the community is a lifetime of pain for grieving families. For every person killed on our roads, another 30 are hospitalised, many suffering long-term, life-changing injuries. 

Dr Helen Stergiou has worked as an emergency physician and trauma consultant at The Alfred Hospital since 2003. As the first point of contact when a patient arrives at the hospital after road trauma, she has seen many accident victims with traumatic brain injuries and has watched the lives of teenagers slip away. 

One of the toughest parts of her job is telling family members their loved one has died. “You may gradually build but you reach the point when you have to say, ‘I’m very sorry, your son is dead’. And then you stop. You don’t fill the gap with words. I wait. They need to feel it and think about it. Then the wailing starts.”

When she leaves the trauma ward she looks at cars being driven slightly erratically and wonders if the driver may be affected by drugs. And when she sees a driver texting, she feels a rush of anger. “I’ll think ‘if you only knew what I did two hours ago’. If you text and drive you are so much more than a bloody idiot. People are dying for the sake of a single text.”


Paramedic sits in darkened ambulance.

Ambulance Victoria paramedic Michelle Murphy has spent 25 years at the front line. Photo: Shannon Morris

At the front line 

Ambulance Victoria paramedic Michelle Murphy has spent 25 years at the front line. She remembers attending a crash scene involving seven young people crammed into a 4WD vehicle in bayside Melbourne. Not all were wearing seatbelts. As the car rolled passengers were ejected, and two of the seven died. “One girl was dead on the road,” recalls Michelle. “One was critically unwell in the vehicle, the roof had crushed in on him. That first image of the scene stays with you forever. You can never unsee that.” Her advice? “Don’t get into a car if you feel unsafe. Peer-group pressure can be extreme. Have a plan B to get home if plan A doesn’t work.” 

What you can do 

We all think road trauma won’t happen to us, but RACV’s general manager corporate affairs and communications Bryce Prosser says there are steps you can take to minimise the risks: 

  • Buy the safest car you can afford. Car makers are constantly introducing new life-saving safety features, but if you’re buying second hand, check Monash University Accident Research Centre’s Used Car Safety Ratings, which rate the safety of 389 models manufactured from 1982 to 2017. Find out more at racv.com.au/ucsr
  • Make sure you and your passengers are safely restrained. All adults must wear a seatbelt and children must be appropriately restrained for their height. It’s recommended children move from a booster seat to an adult seatbelt when they reach 145 centimetres. 
  • Do not drive when affected by alcohol, drugs or fatigue.  
  • Do not allow yourself to be distracted – activate the driver distraction app that comes with your phone or download one and put your phone in your glovebox to remove temptation. TAC research indicates that taking your eyes off the road for just two seconds while driving at 50kmh is the equivalent of travelling blind for 27 metres. 
  • Drive within the safe legal speed limit or to the conditions. If it’s wet or foggy, slow down and allow more distance between you and the car in front.