Putting the brake on road fatalities

Researchers from the UNSW Injury Risk Management Research Centre
Tuesday, 17 February, 2009
Dan Gaffney

Safety experts hope that a new research vehicle can put a brake on road fatalities.

Subaru Australia has handed over the keys to a unique research vehicle that could help UNSW researchers reduce road fatalities caused by driver error and fatigue.

The first "instrumented vehicle" of its kind in NSW, the Subaru's Liberty wagon is fitted with cameras, monitors and computer wizardry that can track and analyse every aspect of driver behaviour in real world driving conditions.

The vehicle's $200,000 research fit-out include "Smarteye" and "Optalert" systems that can detect and alert drivers to deadly "micro-sleeps" - brief, unintended periods of inattention that are linked to hundreds of road fatalities.

Researchers at UNSW's Injury Risk Management and Research Centre (IRMRC) will invest nearly a million dollars over the next three years to learn more about common driver errors that claim the lives of drivers and road users.

The IRMRC chose Subaru's Liberty wagon as a research platform because of its extensive list of standard safety equipment, including a five-star ANCAP rating, symmetrical all-wheel drive, six airbags, electronic throttle control, VDC stability control, an onboard computer system, and ABS brakes.

"Australia's road toll is the lowest it has been since 1950 and NSW has one of the lowest fatality rates in the world," says UNSW Dean of Science, Professor Mike Archer. "But interventions such as better vehicle design, random breath testing and compulsory seat belt wearing mean that all the low-hanging fruit have been picked. Achieving significant new reductions in road trauma will require multidisciplinary teams of experts using sophisticated tools such as the Subaru instrumented vehicle in a real world environment.

"Subaru Australia's foresight and commitment means that we can put together experts in engineering, psychology and epidemiology to solve complex road safety problems, such as fatigue-related road crashes, that still account for one in five road deaths."

Subaru's National Manager of Customer and Technical Services, Derek Ashby, said he was delighted that Subaru could support the UNSW Car Safety Program. "Subaru has a long-term commitment to safety, and it's an honour that our Liberty model was chosen for this project. We're thrilled to support a project that will produce valuable real world data, which will hopefully filter through to future vehicle safety technologies."

Last year, 1463 people lost their lives on Australia's roads - the lowest toll in more than 50 years - and New South Wales has one of the lowest road fatality rates in the world (5.6 per 100,000). Between 1970 and 2008, the nation's annual road fatality rate declined from 30.4 to 6.8 deaths per 100,000 people.

Road and traffic authorities credit random breath testing, seat belt laws, education and improved vehicle design and engineering for the decline in road deaths. Despite this encouraging trend, each year one in five road fatalities is still linked to fatigue - the equivalent of a jumbo jet crashing and killing everyone on board.

The annual economic cost of road crashes in Australia is estimated at $18 billion per annum, causing premature deaths and injuries that have lifelong impacts on victims, families and the community. Since record keeping commenced in 1925, there have been over 178,000 deaths on Australia's roads - more than the number of Australians killed in wars and disasters during the same period.

The UNSW Car Safety Program is a joint effort between road safety authorities and experts, including UNSW's Department of Aviation, the School of Risk and Safety Sciences, the Roads and Traffic Authority, Motor Accidents Authority, Western Australia's Office of Road Safety, Monash University's Department of Civil Engineering and US Centre for Injury Research.

Media contacts:
Dan Gaffney UNSW, 0411 156 015
Alicia Cannon, Subaru Australia, 0414 397 905