WHO Report 2015: Road safety is a global health issue – Part One

An ambulance on a rural road.The underlying ethos of Towards Zero is that we no longer accept people dying or being seriously injured as an inevitable part of using our roads. For as long as motorised vehicles have been around we have viewed road safety as a transport issue when really it is a health issue.

WHO #RoadSafety Report: Despite progress, road traffic deaths ...

New WHO #RoadSafety report: Despite progress, road traffic deaths remain too high→ 1.25 million people die each year as a result of road traffic crashes. This is an unacceptable toll. Yes, Road Safety strategies are saving lives, but the pace of change is too slow. Further action is required.

Posted by World Health Organization (WHO) on Monday, 19 October 2015

The World Health Organisation (WHO) agrees; in 2015, the organisation released a Global Status report on road safety in 180 countries exploring the issue. Worldwide more than 1.24 million people are killed on roads each year - more than 3400 people a day - making it the ninth leading cause of death globally. The ripple effect goes much wider, with up to 50 million people injured yearly. It's estimated these injuries make up almost 50% of hospital bed occupants in the world's surgical wards. Overall the cost of road crashes and their domino effects for ongoing health costs and medical treatment amount to between 1 – 3% of a country's gross domestic product – the higher this figure is, the lower the country's income. These costs not only potentially offset aid to poorer countries but also divert medical resources away from treating less preventable health issues.

Our human bodies are only built to withstand impact forces of up to 30km/h, lower than the average urban speed limit in Victoria. Above that threshold, our bodies begin to break. The most frequent serious injuries from road crashes are spinal cord injuries or traumatic brain injuries, both of which require a lifetime of care and medical attention. While researchers make estimations the collection and recording of data around non-fatal injuries is not standardised, so it is hard to measure the actual cost road trauma has on our health because every person is different and road crash injuries alter lives in unique ways. The common factor is that road crashes have a direct and immediate impact on healthy people, and they are preventable.

Graph of the risk of being killed depending on impact speedVictoria and Australia

In Australia, the estimated annual economic cost of road crashes was the equal to 1.8% of our gross domestic product in 2012-13. Road crash injuries were the third most common cause of injury-related deaths, reaching almost 14% in 2009-10.

For Victoria in 2014-15, the TAC had 6003 claims involving hospitalisation with one in six needing hospital treatment beyond 14 days. In the same period, 47,204 people and their families needed support and services for these injuries. Helping these people recover from road crashes, the TAC provides more than $1 billion worth of medical treatment, rehabilitation, disability services, income assistance, travel and household support services to people each year.

Looking at acquired brain injuries, 55% reported in a 2007 bulletin by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, and 46% of spinal cord injuries registered with Spinal Cord Injuries Australia, are a result of road crashes. Each year in Victoria, $818.4 million is spent by individuals, state and federal governments treating these injuries in health system expenditures, medical aids and equipment and long-term care. Nationally, these costs amount to more than $3 billion.

Spending on medical treatment is relatively easy to quantify and accept, but the cost to someone's life and health is much higher. An Australian government report estimates that  patients with traumatic brain injuries and spinal cord injuries collectively equates to 36,133 disability-adjusted life years – "the time lost by an individual in living with a disability and the time lost due to premature death."

It's a disease that can be eradicated

Considering the effect on people's health and the people caring for them, along with the pressure it puts on our health system, road trauma is a health crisis. The difference is: we have the power to eradicate it as a problem.

In the 2015 report, the World Health Organisation stated: "Road traffic injuries have been neglected from the health of agenda for many years, despite being predictable and largely preventable."

We know of many ways that we can reduce injury and death on our roads and building these into the foundations of road safety will inch us closer Towards Zero. There is no silver bullet solution but jointly tackling it from different angles closes in on this target.

In Victoria, we've seen how improvements to roads, vehicles, laws and people's behaviour have an impact on the number of lives lost each year. Seatbelt laws were one of the first steps the Victorian Government took in improving road safety, and reduced the risk of being killed or seriously injured on our roads by 50%. Further action and technological advancement have seen the number of lives lost in Victoria drop from 1061 in 1970 to 252 in 2015 and spinal cord injuries from road crashes lower from 60 to 25 cases a year.

In Part Two, we'll look at what Victoria is doing about addressing this health crisis and how we're helping other regions as well.