The Arms Race on Australian Roads

A report from the NRMA, reprinted almost verbatim in the SMH, shows that if you’re in a single-vehicle collision in a 4WD, you’re more likely to be injured than in a passenger car. So why do suburbanites drive 4WDs?

To find the answer, you need to go beyond the NRMA’s spin, and check out the report itself. So far as I can tell, it’s this one (big PDF file, sorry), released in June. And the answer to the conundrum is buried on p.115. If you’re in a 4WD and hit a medium-sized car, there’s an 8.4% chance you’ll go to hospital or the morgue. If you’re in the medium car and hit a 4WD, there’s a 15.3% chance of serious injury.

These days, we’re rapidly moving from one equilibrium to another. Medium car-medium car collisions carry an 11.9% injury risk. 4WD-4WD collisions carry a 14.3% injury risk. US researcher Michelle White calls the phenomenon an "arms race" on our roads (I wrote a little piece on it last year).

Since two-vehicle accidents are more common than single-vehicle accidents (p.14 of the report), 4WD owners are probably acting rationally. But I also suspect that since most people think they’re a better driver than the average driver, buyers worry more about  two-vehicle accidents than they really should — which would further skew buyers towards 4WDs.

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6 Responses to The Arms Race on Australian Roads

  1. Richard says:

    If we tackle the “problem” of 4×4’s with penalties, should we take the same approach to other vehicles? For example my mid-life crisis is a classic Holden which weighs one and a half tonnes unladen and has a 5 litre motor. Am I a sinner too? It’s an old vehicle, so no doubt new car enthusiasts will argue that it is less safe for me/other drivers/pedestrians/dogs/demograph-of-your-choice than a sensible medium car. It only holds two people, so has limited car-pooling potential. But I enjoy it, which might be my original sin.

    I have a problem with push bikes that have to share the same lane with motorised traffic, caravans towed by other people, boats that I can’t afford to own (either towed on the road or on the water), light aircraft that sometimes fly overhead, and so on and on, because these objects increase the danger to me as a fellow motorist (caravans), generate envy and other stress responses which increase my level of anxiety and endanger my health (bikes, boats and planes), and/or consume resources that should be directed towards non-recreational uses (all of them except bikes).

    I assume someone has done the definitive analysis that ranks the many factors that contribute to death and serious injury on the roads. I assume that driver training is by far the most serious deficiency, driver attitudes must play a very important role, and so on. 4×4’s are probably a minute issue in the overall scheme. (I haven’t waded through the NRMA report; perhaps this is now apparent.)

    I don’t want a 4×4 and I think they are excessive for me if used for urban commuting. But many people use them for recreation too. As it becomes more difficult to buy a car that can tow anything bigger than a box trailer, many people probably find 4×4’s useful machines. Take a look at your own life style and see how many of your non-productive pursuits increase waste and pollution, consume non-renewable resources, fail to address the problems of the third world, directly endanger other people, or are just plain irritating for the neighbours. God save us from the Euro-style conformity, where the only variety allowed is a personal choice in the colour of your straight-jacket.

  2. Denise says:

    >>As it becomes more difficult to buy a car that can tow anything bigger than a box trailer

  3. Andrew Leigh says:

    Richard, I’m merely arguing that in the case of obvious negative externalities, we should price them in. Here, the consequence would be an additional tax on the purchase price of 4WDs, taking into account the damange you’re likely to do to others. We could of course tax old big cars, but the equity issues of taxing big cars would worry me. As to envy externalities, my colleague Paul Frijters has strong views that we should worry about them. I’m less convinced.

    Denise, I rather like Europe too… though I’m an Americaphile deep down….

  4. Angry says:


    Why do people purchase vehicles that have no practical use to them!?!

    The advertising for 4WD vehicles make it very clear what they are intended for…off road use!

    Instead they spend most of their existence parked in the car lots of shopping centres trying to look intimidating (get one of those ‘back off’ signs for the rear end….cool!).

    Those spare tyres on the rear also make for excellent protection when backing into other vehicles in the same car park, leaving your RV free from damage. Just drive off before anyone gets your details, they all look the same!

    Bah! that’s it! I’m going out to buy an SS Commodore with a spoiler and a giant ‘Bad Boy’ sticker on the back windscreen that I can not possibly afford!

    Great blog by the way.

    ANGER LEVEL….95%

  5. Richard says:

    I’m very slow on the replies, but the question of towing capacity – if you look at the legal towing capacity of the average Commodore/Ford 6 cylinder, the caravans they can tow are small. Many people tow larger trailers than they are legally allowed. It only shows up after you stack the overladen car and the insurance companies step in. This has changed a lot over the last 10 years, so what was commonplace may now be illegal.

    Yes Europeans are sensible rational people and the reason for their small cars is fuel (not oil) price. When I was there a couple of years back it was about 1 Euro per litre, must be pretty terrifying now. Most of this is tax which is deliberate policy to push people towards fuel efficiency. How that strategy would work in Aus where road transport is both fundamental and very long distance is not easy for me to predict. Different economic structures, different strategies for maintaining international competitive positions. So much of European economic activity seems to be heavily taxed or heavily subsidised, transfering resources by government redistribution instead of market redistribution. In our more free market society, we make choices, such as buying 4×4’s, which may not be perfect, but I am not convinced that the European model is more resource efficient. There’s a lot more to energy efficiency for a whole economy than the fuel we put through the motor of our cars.

    I do like Europe really, facinating to visit, my cultural origin, but I would suffocate if I lived there.

  6. Richard says:

    Andrew, sorry, I missed your important point about pricing in obvious externalities. Good principle, but I bet London to a brick that we all pick out the externaliites that we have some form of prejudice about. 4×4’s irritate you in the way Mercedes drivers who double park (because I am rich, you silly pleb!)irritate me. The problem I have on this issue is with me, because most Mercedes drivers are considerate drivers who I consequently fail to notice.

    Your concern about pricing externalities on old cars is a demonstration of this selective prejudice. For admirable compassionate reasons, you would not like to see the same penalties applied to low income old-car owners. But what about me? I’m comforatbly middle class and I own the old ute because like it. I find modern cars boring to the point of exasperation, even though I own one of them as well.

    If we are going to cost in all externalities, we should do so without prejudice. You will find your own life crowded from all directions as those around you criticise your personal choices for a range of relatively trivial reasons. The resources the nation would have to commit to this exercise would save several Pacific island nations from a grim future (at a guess).

    If poor driver attitudes and inadequate training are the main causes of road trauma, focus upon them. The Europeans do this much better than we do, so that the cost of getting a licence for a teenager in Europe is prohibitive – the externalities of driver training are costed in. How would a young person living in our sprawling outer suburbs get a job if he/she couldn’t afford several thousand dollars for the car licence? And then couldn’t buy a car because it has to be modern and very fuel efficient? So my prejudice says we should provide a high level of driver training at public expense, because there would be a huge public benefit in reduced slaughter of our young and energetic citizens. 4×4’s are, in real costs and benefits, a non-issue compared the loss of life and quality of life amongst young people, very few of whom drive 4×4’s.

    Cost in the externalities by all means, but do so fairly and without prejudice. Then look at the social consequences. There may be some nasty surprises that you hadn’t anticipated.

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