Dr Michael Henderson AO
There has been some comment in our Australian media in support of the recently released National Road Safety Strategy or NRSS (www.roadsafety.gov.au/nrss) published in December 2021 after consultations between our several Infrastructure and Transport Ministers.
Media comment so far has been generally supportive of the broad objectives in the new Strategy. However, some writers have taken a rather superficial and alarmist response to what the strategy proposes in relation to older vehicles. For example, Tom Burton of the Australian Financial Review has written (on 7th June 2021) that “the Victorian Government is pushing for people to trade in older cars, with new data showing two-thirds of drivers and passengers killed on Victorian roads last year were travelling in vehicles more than 10 years old”.
(For more details, see https://www.carsales.com.au/editorial/details/victoria-announces-cash-for-clunkers-scheme-128073/ )
While these data are hardly new, and there is not yet a defined policy in place nationally, there may be some political mileage perceived in promoting the idea of discarding older vehicles or more generally reducing the age of the nation’s fleet of light passenger vehicles. The aim of the NRSS is that by 2030 at least 25 per cent of the light vehicle fleet has a 5-star score from the Australasian New Car Assessment Program (NCAP, with vehicle scores not more than six years old) and that the average age of the light vehicle fleet will be under nine years.
Personally, although the paths to this aim are not properly spelt out, I am generally in favour of this item of the strategy, having been an early participant in the NCAP program and always a strong advocate for greater vehicle fleet safety. The issue is of course not as simple as implied by the smallish numbers often cited in the media, as research has shown over the years.
The relationship of vehicle age to safety has been studied for a long time. As long ago as 2003 an Australian-run study of crashes in New Zealand showed that the risk of being injured in a pre-1984 car was nearly three times as high as a crash in a post-1994 car. An American study of fatal crashes, using huge numbers and sophisticated modelling, showed that the restrained driver of an 18+ years old car was 71% more likely to be fatally injured than the restrained driver of a near-new car, and the driver of a car 8-11 years old 19% more likely. (Unsurprisingly, it was also shown that not wearing a seat belt largely negated any available benefit.)
The benefits appear to be greater for older drivers, who are more vulnerable to impact injury. A 2018 American fatality study showed that older drivers of 2010 and newer cars had a 46% lower risk of death than those driving US vehicles of model year 2000 to 2009.
Of course, there are dozens of confounding factors in the broad figures noted above. For example, older and cheaper cars derived from the mass market are much more likely to be driven by younger drivers, whose higher crash rates are well documented. The type of vehicle – from big and heavy SUVs to little and light city cars – also has a huge influence on injury risk, both for the occupants and the occupants of the colliding vehicle.
Among the best work in the world on these factors has been done in Australia. Data gathered annually since 1982 from police crash reports in Australia and New Zealand have been modelled by Monash University’s excellent Accident Research Centre (MUARC) to generate ratings of crashworthiness (for the given vehicle occupants) and aggressiveness (for the risk of injury for occupants of the vehicles hit).
Over the period 1982 to 2019 the trend has been quite rapid improvements in the early years as vehicle safety became an important public issue, with a tendency for lower rates of improvement as they become ever more difficult and expensive. As a gross generalisation it is fair to say that passenger vehicles have become about twice as safe over the last 40 years.
The figures noted in the Victorian Roads Minister’s release are consistent with the scientific evidence, although the small numbers he quotes prove nothing on their own. I doubt that the release is an implied direct threat to the interests of the Foundation, but we should nevertheless be very wary.
Although there is no doubt that when a crash occurs the occupants of an older car – whether classic, heritage, iconic, historic or whatever – are at greater risk of injury than in a modern car, there is no evidence that older vehicles are involved in a greater than average number of crashes. It’s the way they are driven that is the critical factor in this small proportion of the total vehicle fleet.
The NSW government has recently completed its two-year “experiment”, a trial designed to determine whether its support of the historic vehicle conditional registration scheme (for cars over 30 years of age) might safely be eased to permit more frequent and flexible use of such vehicles. The results have not been published. However, it has recently been confirmed that the new and less restrictive scheme has now been made permanent. This strongly implies that the relevant vehicles in practice do not represent a threat to safety for their occupants or others because of their low crash or CTP rate, which I assume are the factors supporting the government’s (welcome) decision.
In summary, the evidence is that well-maintained and much-loved older cars, classics or otherwise, cannot been seen as “clunkers” that could threaten the aims of the new National Road Safety Strategy.