For Marina Nikolic, the night of Sunday, June 5 this year will never be forgotten.

At around 10 p.m. that night, Nikolic was driving behind a Toyota hatchback carrying her 56-year-old mother and another 60-year-old occupant in the Melbourne suburb of West Meadows when she collided with a Mercedes. Both her mother and the other occupant were killed.

Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident. Indeed, no fewer than 1,205 people were killed on Australia’s roads last year – down by around a quarter from the 1,603 fatalities which occurred in calendar 2007 but still 1,205 too many. Of these, 300 were aged less than 25, and 59 were aged less than 16. Add in the fact that there were more than 35,000 hospitalised injuries as a result of road trauma in 2013 (the last year for which data is available) and the cost of road accidents becomes clear.

Whilst this is a multi-faceted problem which needs to be addressed from a number of angles, the importance of road design and urban planning is immense. Indeed, better roads are a critical feature of the federal government’s Safe System strategy, which in turn is part of the National Road Safety Strategy. The latter aims to reduce both road fatalities and serious accidents by 30 per cent over the decade to 2020.

So how can we create safer road networks? Is it possible to literally ‘design out’ all road fatalities?

Kenn Beer, a transport planner and principal of Melbourne-based road safety auditing and engineering outfit Safe System Solutions says design can indeed eliminate fatalities, but it would require all elements of the system to come together. Along with the better infrastructure, this includes sensible road behaviour, appropriate speed limits and excellent vehicle design, he said.

“We can go a huge way in eliminating death or serious injury using road design and planning,” he said. “In my mind, that will get us a step change towards zero (fatalities).”

From a safety perspective, Beer says modern approaches in traffic engineering revolve around an acknowledgement that the ‘human’ is by far the most fallible aspect of the system. They focus therefore upon efforts to reduce or eliminate the potential for human error to result in serious injury or fatality. A key feature of this is being achieved through strategies such as shared cycle paths which separate vulnerable road users (such as pedestrians and cyclists) from vehicles and overpasses which separate streams of traffic.

Other efforts are aimed toward reducing the likelihood of a crash through measures such as ensuring that the road system is laid out in a manner which is clear and self-explanatory.

Finally, Beer says there are efforts which revolve around harm minimisation and reducing the impact and intensity of accidents which do occur. An example of this is flexible roadside barriers which contain vehicles which are going off roads and attempt to spare the occupant of the violence associated with smashing into trees or power poles with full force.

Damien Chee, a road safety engineer at DC Traffic Engineering, offers a different perspective. Asked about designing all road fatalities out of the system, Chee acknowledges that significant gains can be made through design but cautions that the design out of all fatalities is constrained in practice by a number of factors.

For starters, there are competing interests. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, Chee says it may be possible to eliminate accidents by banning all cars from using the road or to reduce the severity of impact from vehicles running off the side of the road through placement of inflatable mattresses along all road sides. More practical solutions such as grade separations are subject to competing demands such as cost constraints and economic feasibility, he adds.

Furthermore, Chee says, road accident causes are multi-dimensional in nature and it is often not possible to address all of the potential hazards at once. Indeed, he says, it is important that in addressing one area of the problem, we must ensure we don’t inadvertently create problems elsewhere. By implementing more restrictive vehicle flow onto freeways, for instance, it is important to ensure that you are not creating hazards by increasing queues on entry ramps, he says.

Finally, when better roads are in place, Chee says the effect of these can be offset to some degree by an effect known as ‘gold plating’, which sees drivers respond to the safer conditions by adopting a less cautious approach to driving.

When looking at the type of accidents which occur and their implications for road design, Chee says it is helpful to consider rural and urban environments on a separate basis. In rural areas, he says, predominate crash patterns involve single vehicles which either run off the road or veer into the path of oncoming vehicles. Solutions for these types of issues are relatively straightforward and include matters such as appropriate speed restrictions, road design, road alignment and having clear zones which enable vehicles which do leave the road to remain free of objects whilst ideally staying upright and avoiding rollovers.

In urban environments, Chee says crash patterns are more complicated and more frequently involve collisions with other vehicles at intersections and collisions with bicycles or pedestrians. Solutions, too, are constrained by the natural limitations of the urban environment and issues of constructability on already busy road networks.

Here, Chee says the primary focus tends to revolve around areas of maximum trauma. Pedestrians – who unlike vehicle occupants are unprotected by seat belts, airbags and vehicle crumple zones and can thus suffer serious injury or fatality in accidents which involve much lower speeds – are a critical area of priority. So too are intersections, which represent a source not only of potential trauma but also of frustrating congestion. With constraints on solutions, Chee says the focus revolves around smaller and incremental gains as opposed to the significant advances which can be made through creating town bypasses in rural areas.

Beyond simple road design, there are broader matters associated with urban planning and technology. In terms of the former, a critical issue revolves around ‘demand management’ and the design of cities in such a way as to restrict the need for vehicle travel through  measures such as the placement of housing within close proximity to transport links and the encouragement and enabling of people to work from home. One area where planners have done well, Chee notes, revolves around the design of many suburbs which are largely self-contained and reduce much of the need for residents to travel outside of their nearby environment.

In terms of technology, Beer says autonomous vehicles have potential in terms of their ability to eliminate human error from driving, though he acknowledges that the full adoption of such vehicles is still decades away.

Whilst Australia cannot eliminate all road accidents through design alone, we can achieve important gains through good road and urban design.

Given the statistics, this is an area in which we cannot afford to fail.

Key accident facts

According to the 2015 version of the ‘Road Trauma Australia’ report published by the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development:

  • During calendar 2015, there were 1,205 fatalities on Australia’s roads (recent monthly data puts the figure for the 12 months to July at 1,292). This is down by almost a quarter from 1,603 deaths as recently as 2007.
  • Of these, drivers accounted for 555 fatalities followed by passengers (249), motorcyclists (203), pedestrians (164) and cyclists (31).
  • In terms of demographics, 40-to-64 year olds accounted for the highest number of fatalities (373) followed by 26-to-39 year olds (272), 17-to-25 year olds (226), over 75s (151), 65-to-74 year olds (118) and children of 16 or under (65).
  • Single vehicles crashes accounted for 533 deaths followed by multiple vehicle crashes (508) and pedestrian crashes (164).
  • In 2014 (figures not given for 2015), almost half of all fatalities (46 per cent) involved either a younger driver or a younger motorcyclist.
  • 369 fatalities in 2014 were caused by single vehicle run-off road incidents followed by deaths at intersections (234) and head-on collisions (219).
  • In 2013, there were 35,059 hospitalisations as a result of road trauma, of which around a quarter involved serious threats to life.
  • Around two-thirds of all road injuries requiring hospitalisation (23,176) occurred in major cities, followed by inner regional areas (6,574), outer regional areas (3.425) and remote (690) and very remote areas (530).