About 83 fewer people would have lost their lives on Australian roads in 2016 if fuel prices were higher, a study from the Australian National University has found.

The study found that a fall in fuel prices contributed to knocking Australia off track for meeting the 2020 road safety target, however the NRMA disagrees with the findings.

ANU economist Paul Burke found a link between fuel prices and the road death toll that when petrol prices are lower the death toll rises.

Australia experienced a period of relatively cheaper fuel during 2015 and 2016 following the world oil price crash in late 2014, Dr Burke said.

The national road death toll increased to 1205 in 2015 and then 1293 in 2016 after 1151 deaths in 2014, and came after years of steady decline in the road toll. The ACT experienced 15 and then 11 road deaths in 2015 and 2016 before dropping to five in 2017.

The research estimated that had fuel prices remained steady prior to the oil price crash Australia’s death toll would still have risen but by less than half of the actual increase; meaning 83 lives may have been spared.

The most obvious part of the findings, Dr Burke said, was when prices were lower there were more kilometres travelled, meaning more exposure to risk for drivers.

However the research found there was also more deaths per kilometre travelled, meaning the death toll rose at a greater rate than simply by the increase in kilometres travelled, which he put down to several possible factors.

“One example is if the fuel price is lower people are more likely to buy and drive larger vehicles like SUVs,” Dr Burke said.

“These vehicles are safer for the occupants, but they’re more dangerous for people external to the vehicle – so in net terms they are more dangerous.

“Younger people are more responsive to the fuel price, so when the fuel price is low younger people in particular drive more and younger people are more risky drivers.”

While the research provided several suggestions, with the findings also submitted to the federal government’s Inquiry into the National Road Safety Strategy, keeping fuel prices permanently higher is not a recommendation.

“We don’t recommend that we should be holding fuel prices high just for this reason because there’s a lot to consider when deciding what the optimal fuel excise rate is,” Dr Burke said.

“There are a couple of interesting implications, one is that when the fuel price falls it is probably a good time for increased investment in road safety campaigns and perhaps road safety patrols by police.”

ACT Policing did not specifically address petrol prices but urged drivers to take caution on the roads and be mindful of contributing factors to road crashes such as speed, drug and alcohol use and distracted drivers.

A Victoria Police spokeswoman said they were committed to investigating contributing factors to road trauma.

“Our analysis has shown that there are a variety of factors which together contribute to road trauma,” the spokeswoman said.

“Our previous examinations of links between fuel prices and road trauma did not identify any sustained direct correlation.”

NRMA spokesman Peter Khoury said the NRMA was skeptical of research into fuel prices particularly at a national level.

“We would always urge caution when looking at petrol prices and trends because we know that petrol is such a local issue,” Mr Khoury said.

“On any particular day the petrol prices in any given area can vary hugely and so can a community’s behaviour on when they drive and also when they buy petrol.”

Mr Khoury added that several factors could lower the road death toll regardless of petrol prices, for instance upgrading the fleet of cars on the road would see significant improvements as the fatality rate is four times higher in older cars.

Dr Burke rejected these claims as the purpose of the study was not “to find if there was a difference between Sydney and Dubbo”, but to look at the rates over time. The researchers studied historical data which found links between death toll and fuel prices dating back to 1989, he said.

“There’s lots of research from overseas that finds a similar type of relationship to what we found for Australia,” he said.

Great Britain, New Zealand, Canada and the United States all experienced an increase in road death toll in 2015 and 2016, which Dr Burke said could be linked to the world oil price drop.

Despite a drop in the road toll in 2017 compared to the previous year, Australia is no longer on track to meet its road safety target of less than 1000 road deaths by 2020.

Extracted from SMH