McKinnon Poll: Road Safety Attitudes

10 October 2021

Reducing death and injury due to motor vehicle accidents is an objective for all governments and has been a success story for many, with a significant reduction in the road toll as a result of policy interventions by governments, enforcement of those policy changes and behavioural changes by road users. However, the reduction in the road toll has slowed in recent years.

Changes to road rules can be highly controversial and road safety and the road toll is a regular topic of public conversation. There are debates on the effectiveness or fairness of various road rules and enforcement methods, and on the trade-offs that people are prepared to make to achieve safety benefits.

The Susan McKinnon Foundation funded a newDemocracy Foundation pilot to explore the potential for opinion polling to improve the quality of public policy decision making in Australia (the Pilot). Research agency, Resolve Strategic was commissioned to undertake one of three pilot research projects, in this case, research to understand road users’ attitudes, experiences and behaviours when it comes to road use and, in particular, road safety. This was not an exhaustive policy test, but instead an exploratory piece of research to assist in policy making and implementation.

Given the volume of existing research on road safety held by government departments, agencies, motoring organisations, safety groups and lobbying groups, it was tempting to go straight to a test of new policy and messaging. However, Resolve Strategic chose to include an early phase of qualitative research to ensure that all past assumptions were interrogated, a foundational step that is often missing from standard polling research.

The topic of road safety measures can be contentious, and dependent on discretionary policy making by governments to address. However, there is limited reliable data on community attitudes.

A better understanding of community attitudes could assist in:

  • Identifying interventions that would have community support.
  • Identifying areas where further justification is needed to increase community acceptance, and what might be persuasive.
  • Opening up new policy options by understanding trade-offs that might make some interventions more acceptable.

The research examined public opinion on road safety, the causes of road fatalities, the kinds of changes that the community would accept (in particular with reference to point-to-point cameras, vehicle safety standards and bicycle infrastructure), and the areas where more community debate is needed. The research also explored how road safety messages might be justified and framed most effectively, and who the trusted sources of advice on road safety are.

The research also covered:

  • Perceptions of the fairness of various interventions, and what makes them considered ‘fair’ or ‘unfair’.
  • The trade-offs that the public are prepared to make to accept particular interventions.
  • Diverging views between different demographics and geographic locations. For example, are there different perceptions amongst regional communities, or amongst groups that drive long distances?

The research methodology involved:

  • Six focus groups that were conducted online. These focus groups took participants through their spontaneous thoughts, through to prompted policy and message testing. This group was made up of a sample of 52 road users, including a mix of riders, walkers, passengers, segmented by urban and regional areas with major jurisdictions.
  • A nationwide survey of 6,107 participants, conducted online and accurate to within +/ 1.3% overall, but which also allowed for significant segmentation of sub samples of interest, particularly in the larger states.

Key insights arising from the research included:

  • Just over half of survey respondents say they give thought to safety every time they use the road, though this may be something as simple as using a seatbelt or helmet. It is perhaps more instructive that a majority consider themselves safer than average on the roads with just 1% believing or admitting that they are less safe than average.
  • Road users are more confident than they should be. Around two thirds (64%) of road users have been involved in at least one road accident of some sort, but just a quarter (25%) expect that they will experience a road accident in the next five years. In short, few people feel unsafe or at risk when they begin a trip.
  • Participants tend to believe a lack of skill or attention comes from ‘other drivers’. In other words, drivers tend to shift the blame for poor driving behaviours to others, and consider they are at risk of accidents regardless of their own behaviour.
  • The perceived low risk of speeding and the driver’s degree of personal comfort means road users to put safety at the back of their minds, and this can act as an enabler for them to use the road in risky ways. They may use vehicle safety features and equipment in most cases, but speeding beyond stated limits is very common. Indeed, two thirds (67%) have received a speeding ticket, 11% of them in the last year.
  • Critically, if we look at speeding as the most common and unsafe of risky behaviours, it is clear that experiences and expectations of accidents or penalties do nothing to affect propensity to speed. Even those who say they consider safety important think about safety often and consider themselves to drive at a safe speed. This cannot be emphasised enough: speeding is not deemed universally unsafe and most people speed.

Further details, findings and insights were shared with relevant stakeholders, including Members of Parliament, government agencies and other interest groups at the time. The data set arising from the research is available for download. Stakeholders also engaged in a series of feedback and design interviews relating to program design and development for the purposes of the Pilot. Details, findings and insights relating to the Pilot are set out in a research report published on 31 January 2022.