By Dr Ingrid Johnston, Chief Executive Officer, Australasian College of Road Safety

As the impacts of climate change continue to devastate Australia’s infrastructure and transport sectors, it’s become clear that road safety and maintenance is not only important  – it will save lives.

The stereotypical complaint from the public about road infrastructure usually centres around the seemingly endless task of fixing potholes. As climate change impacts continue and increase, that is going to change. We are already seeing this in many places around the world, with road infrastructure maintenance challenges increasing dramatically.

This isn’t going to stop – it’s going to get worse. So, we need to better understand the connections; the impacts of climate change on road safety, the impact of the transport sector on climate change, and the solutions in common.

In disaster-prone Australia, the impacts of climate change on road safety are becoming clear. In the February – mid March 2022 floods in Queensland, 13 people lost their lives. Of these, ten deaths were related to vehicles and roads.

Cars and motorcycles are being washed away, people are trapped in cars stuck in floodwaters, drowned while trying to swim to safety from a vehicle, pedestrians are swept away trying to cross a flooded road. And it’s not just floods.

A Risk Frontiers study of bushfire deaths from 2010–2020 in Australia found that 45 per cent of these deaths were related to vehicles, most commonly being burnt in a vehicle whilst trying to evacuate or fight the fires.

Ever-growing dangers

Climate change is increasing the frequency and severity of various kinds of extreme weather events and disasters, including Australia’s intense rainfall, cyclones, floods and bushfires. Statistically, increased intensity of rainfall and heatwaves are both already associated with increased crashes on our roads.

For those responsible for road infrastructure, the picture is equally challenging. Infrastructure damage directly related to climate change is diverting resources from road safety improvements to maintenance. There are already local councils in Australia who can barely keep up with the increasing damage from the flooding over the past 12 or so months.

The challenge has been explicitly recognised in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. The 2022 report has high confidence that infrastructure, including transportation, has been compromised by extreme and slowonset events, with resulting economic losses, disruptions of services and impacts to well-being.

The report goes on to say that key infrastructure systems, including transport, will be increasingly vulnerable if design standards do not account for the changing climate conditions. Costs for maintenance and reconstruction of urban infrastructure, including transportation, will increase with global warming levels, and the associated functional disruptions are projected to be substantial particularly for cities, settlements and infrastructure located on coasts.

At the same time as feeling the effects of climate change, the transportation sector is a major contributor to it. In Australia, the transport sector is responsible for 17 per cent of emissions, and this proportion is increasing.

About three quarters of transport emissions globally come from road vehicles. Poor air quality from vehicle emissions has health impacts for pedestrians and cyclists, discourages people from using public and active travel options, and puts them back into their cars in a cycle of increasing emissions.

Fine particulate matter PM2.5 from vehicle emissions is associated with nine million deaths globally every year, and nitrogen dioxide, another vehicle emission, is associated with four million cases of childhood asthma every year around the world. It’s time to re-define the safety part of road safety.

What can we do?

The transport infrastructure construction needed to improve road safety requires significant amounts of natural raw materials. The extraction, transportation and production of these materials produces waste, consumes energy, and emits greenhouse emissions.

Significant benefits can be realised by finding new uses and solutions to reuse, repurpose and repair civil infrastructure. Recycled, alternative, and sustainable materials are being successfully used, and more can be done.

The IPCC report also recognises that there are solutions in common to the road transport and climate change challenges. A low-emission transport sector would bring many benefits.

Many mitigation strategies in the transport sector would have co-benefits, including air quality improvements, health benefits, equitable access to transportation services, reduced congestion, and reduced material demand.

The planning of healthy cities strongly favours public and active transport. The health benefits from reduced car dependency are increasingly influencing urban planning processes. Decision-making tools that focus on health benefits encourage cities to increase emphasis on public transit and active transport.

The transport sector, finding itself as both a contributor to climate change and impacted by that climate change, can also become part of the solution, improving road safety and the climate at the same time.

The responses from the infrastructure perspective will require concerted effort and creative thinking to achieve sustainability in the future. The challenge has been set.

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1 Comment
  1. John Howard 2 years ago

    Cambridge scientists say there is a risk of climate change going beyond irreversible tipping point, and this is only one environmental problem. We need an environmental Promised Land to give us hope and to encourage public support.
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