Old, incomplete data hinders attempts to reduce number of car crash injuries

Government attempts to reduce the number of people being seriously injured in car crashes each year – costing $27 billion to the health system – are threatened by a lack of accountability and a dearth of data, a seminar on the federal government’s inquiry into Australia’s road safety plan has heard.

Every year more than 40,000 Australians with serious injuries are hospitalised for at least 24 hours following car crashes. In 2017, 1250 Australians died in car crashes.

But the hospitalization data surrounding those injured was four years old, incomplete, fragmented and difficult to aggregate, the co-chairs of the inquiry, surgeon Dr John Crozier and road safety expert Professor Jeremy Woolley, told an online seminar organised by the Australian Road Research Board (ARRB).  If a corporate board was basing strategy and compliance decisions on multibillion-dollar expenditure that was four years old, it would be required to “show cause” why it shouldn’t be fired, said Dr Crozier, head of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons’ trauma committee.

Professor Woolley, the director of the Centre of Automotive Safety Research in Adelaide, urged the industry to do whatever it could to collect its own statistics.  Fatality data was reasonably clear and current, but the data on injuries was not, he said.  National data was hard to get, often lacked transparency, and was sometimes as difficult to unlock as a “black box”.  Dr Crozier said the data relating to injuries, aggregated at a national level, was four years old and often the modelling used historical data that understated the real costs.

The inquiry into the National Road Safety Plan was announced last year after the road toll spiked in several states after decades of falling.

Nearly every submission to the inquiry says Australia is unlikely to meet its target to reduce annual deaths and serious injuries by 30 per cent by the end of 2020.

As well as increased fatalities on the roads in 2015 and 2016, the Australian Injury Prevention Network (AIPN) said serious injuries had risen among cyclists.

The AIPN called for the creation of a national-linked database with timely reporting of injuries and fatalities using “a standard definition across jurisdictions”.  This would enable geospatial data on crashes linked to health records to enable timely identification and prioritisation of dangerous roads, said Professor Rebecca Ivers, AIPN’s president.

Professor Woolley called for more accountability by policy-makers for the failure of Australia to meet its goals.

Because there are so many serious injuries, the injury data was much richer and more useful to policy-makers, and enhanced the data gleaned from fatal crashes.

The seminar heard that big companies like Transurban, which runs motorways in Sydney, had systems that plotted where an accident or fatality occurred. Mining companies had systems that generated notifications of incidents within seconds of occurrence.  Governments needed similar information, said participants.  In particular, policy-makers needed nationally aggregated data that would link the location, time and type of car crash to each hospital admission while protecting the privacy of the individual who was hurt.

Professor Woolley said the “one size fits all” approach to road safety didn’t work, and the differences between rural, remote and large metropolitan areas was “quite staggering”.

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