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4WDs – The Killers in our Midst?

Do the anti-4WD claims really stack up?

In this report, we look behind the histrionics and investigate whether 4WDs deserve the pasting they get in the popular press. One in five new vehicle purchases is a 4WD, so plenty of people like them. And those who don’t get their say, via the media. Who’s right?

Judging by e-mail feedback last week, some Crash Prevention readers profoundly hate 4WDs. The risk posed in demonising a class of vehicle is simple, however – vehicles lack the capacity for anti-social behaviour. This responsibility is borne by drivers alone – or at least it should be.

Hating 4WDs actually gives their operators an escape clause (the vehicle made me do it). In the current driving climate, the last thing we should be doing is blaming vehicles. Drivers are already very reluctant to fess up and be accountable for their actions when anything goes wrong on the road.

If – and only if – legislating against 4WDs would lead to a tangible road safety benefit, perhaps should we consider it. But would it? It’s crackpottery writ large merely to act on vocal community sentiment reported in the papers. There’s no way even of knowing whether this is representative of the popular view, or just a few vocal zealots who make good copy for the media.

And let’s just say we ban 4WDs. What next? Old cars? B-doubles? Young drivers? Old drivers? Powerful cars? How about box trailers, or caravans? It’s a slippery slope. What we need to do is probably empower drivers with information and techniques that allows the safe operation of all vehicles on the road. Nobody is arguing that 4WDs should be driven slightly differently to cars. Or that there are anti-social 4WD drivers (as well as anti-social car, ute, truck and bus drivers).

Anti-4WD invective, both in print and on the road, is becoming increasingly personal. There’s even a new practice in town: ‘Toorak tractor tagging’, which involves placing stickers on 4WDs with helpful reminders from the lunatic fringe, such as “Child Killing Vehicle” and “I’m Polluting Your Air”.

Such hysteria is, of course, fed by the short attention spans of the general news media, where an emotive headline beats a robust analysis of the facts any day of the week. Here are some examples:

  • “Insecure? Vain? Self-centred? Self-absorbed? Lack confidence in your driving skills? Nervous about your marriage? If so, you are the stereotypical 4WD driver” – The Bulletin, 28 January 2004
  • “The right to drive is not a right to kill” – Sydney Morning Herald 19 May 2005
  • “Death traps” – Sydney Morning Herald, 7 September 2003
  • “Deadly beasts of the burbs strike again” – Sydney Morning Herald, 10 May 2003
  • “Killer 4WDs” – Herald Sun, 23 May 2003
  • “4WDs more likely to kill” – Sunday Telegraph. 24 October 2004

It’s a grim picture, but is it true? Are 4WDs the killers in our midst, or does the hype mean we’re merely seeing merely the inmates in charge of the asylum, and the general news media acting as their de facto PR department?


REALITY: ‘Aggressivity’ is the risk of a driver of vehicle ‘A’ being killed or admitted to hospital when involved in a tow-away crash with vehicle ‘B’. There are no federally mandated minimum aggressivity standards, and at best the regulators equivocate about being able to formulate meaningful aggressivity yardsticks. So manufacturers are basically free to write their own ticket here, without Federal Government oversight to protect consumers. Despite this, 4WDs are becoming less aggressive. A Monash University Accident Research Centre (MUARC) report titled Vehicle Aggressivity by Year of Manufacture and Market Group, published in March 2004 and sponsored by the RAC, VicRoads, the RTA, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) and NRMA Motoring & Services, concluded that 4WD aggressivity improved by 25 per cent between 1982 and 2000. In the same time, the aggressivity of small cars’ increased 30 per cent, probably to meet more stringent frontal crash protection standards.


REALITY: According to the 2002 ATSB report, Monograph 11: Four-Wheel Drive Crashes, the greatest proportion of 4WD crashes occurred in high-speed zones (100km/h or more). Fifty-four per cent of 4WD crashes occured in high-speed zones, compared with 41 per cent for cars. However, the proportion of cars crashing in low-speed zones (60km/h or under) is higher at 36 per cent, compared with 4WDs at just 25 per cent. That’s right – only one in four 4WD crashes occur in urban-limit areas. The majority of 4WD crashes occur on rural roads, with 57 per cent of 4WD crashes in 1990 trending upwards to 68 per cent in 1998. Around half of all passenger car crashes occurred in both rural and urban areas, with no apparent trend between 1990 and 1998.
Despite this, the AAMI insurance company issued a 28 September 2004 release stating “Half of Australian Drivers Say 4WDs Don’t Belong in the City”. The proportion was actually less than half (48 per cent) and the number of drivers canvassed was just 1880 – far fewer than the total number of drivers down under.


REALITY: It could be argued that the safety record of motorcycles is appalling. In 1998, there were 13.6 motorcycle deaths for every 100 million motorcycle kilometres travelled. That’s incredibly high compared with passenger cars, where there was just 1.0 death for every 100 million passenger car kilometres. After motorcycles came heavy trucks greater than 4.5 tonnes GVM (2.4 deaths per 100 million kilometres). Four-wheel drives were next – and twice as safe – at 1.2 deaths per 100 million kilometres. Perversely, light trucks (less than 4.5 tonnes GVM) were the only group that bettered the result of cars, at 0.8 deaths per 100 million vehicle kilometres.

The ATSB says it’s not 4WDs but rather four-wheel drivers who have an appalling safety record. It claims 29 per cent of 4WD drivers in fatal crashes had a blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) exceeding .05g/100ml. This compares with 26 per cent of motorcycle riders, 21 per cent of passenger car drivers, 19 per cent of light truck drivers and just two per cent of heavy truck drivers.

After impairment (from alcohol and/or drugs and/or fatigue), which was responsible for 54 per cent of fatal 4WD crashes, the next most common cause of fatal 4WD crashes was unintended driver error, such as failing to see another vehicle or signal, or misjudging another vehicle’s speed or the condition of the road ahead. Driver error was responsible for 28 per cent of fatal 4WD crashes. The 4WD vehicle itself contributed to just seven per cent of fatal 4WD crashes – around the same percentage attributable to intentional risk taking by the driver. The balance of four per cent was attributed to the environment or mischance.

The anti-4WD lobby also takes much pleasure in citing what it claims is the high proportion of 4WDs that run off the road. However, official ATSB statistics reveal that the involvement of 4WDs and cars in single-vehicle crashes is fairly even, with 4WDs slightly better. Thirty-eight per cent of all 4WD crashes are the single-vehicle kind, compared with 41 per cent of cars. And while much is made of a 4WD’s rollover propensity, it’s far more common to die from hitting a roadside object. According to a March 2005 report by the Victorian Parliamentary Road Safety Committee, fully one-third of road death is primarily the result of striking an object at the roadside – and 60 per cent of those fatal roadside object strikes are in urban areas, where it is cars that crash more frequently.


REALITY: The ATSB’s Monograph 11 report indicates cars are almost twice as likely to collide with pedestrians, compared with 4WDs. Of all the 4WD collisions in 1998, the ATSB reveals just 11 per cent took place between the 4WD and a pedestrian (one in nine). However, in a rather depressing 20 per cent – one out of every five – of all 1998’s passenger car collisions, the object struck was a pedestrian. Conclusion? If you drive a car, you are 81 per cent more likely to hit pedestrians than if you drive a 4WD. This result is certainly an inconvenient result for the anti-4WD minority, but it is fact nonetheless. Perhaps the 4WD’s superior pedestrian crash avoidance capability is rooted in the intrinsically higher seating position that affords a superior view of the road ahead, and therefore enhances the driver’s capacity for threat perception.

4WD CLAIM 5: The 4WD ‘Problem’

REALITY: If there’s one statistic the anti-4WD lobby has vociferously latched onto, it’s this: between 1990 and 1998, fatal crashes involving 4WDs rose 85 per cent. It originates in the ATSB’s Monograph 11: Four-Wheel Drive Crashes, published in 2002.

But that quote is horrendous, right? Eighty-five per cent seems alarming. It certainly gives rise to media grandstanding like this: “The bitumen is becoming the battlefield for a vehicular arms race.” (Weekend Australian, 13/12/03.)

As bad as that looks for anyone who chooses to operate a 4WD, it’s a top-notch example of what’s known in journalism as quoting something out of context. In fact, the boom in 4WD sales over that time meant many more 4WDs on the road, covering many, many more kilometres.

According to the report’s authors, “this [85 per cent] increase in fatal 4WD crashes is likely to be due to the growing [distance] travelled by 4WDs, rather than any decrease in the safety of 4WDs”. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) supports this claim, with its records demonstrating the total distance travelled annually by 4WDs almost doubled between 1995 and 1998, from around 8 to 16 million kilometres.

The 85 per cent is based on the total number of fatal 4WD crashes in 1990 (101) increasing to 187 in 1998. The total number of fatal crashes was 2050 in 1990 and 1573 in 1998.

How do we quantify the risk to you and other road users of operating a 4WD? Luckily, you don’t have to – these data exist, too, in a report from the respected Monash University Accident Research Centre (MUARC) noted in the Australian Parliamentary Library on December 1, 2004. Here is the relevant explanation: “Using a 4WD reduces the risk of death or serious injury to you by about 4 in 1000. However, it increases the risk of same to others by around 11 in 1000.”

What does that mean? Well, 4 in 1000 is about 0.4 per cent, or just under half a per cent. And 11 in 1000 is 1.1 per cent, or just over one per cent. It means operating a 4WD makes the roads just under half a per cent safer for you, and just over one per cent more risky for those around you. And that’s really what all the fuss is all about – the lunatic fringe is making a mountain out of a molehill.

To put the figures in context, you have to understand how risky – actually how safe – driving really is. Road death and serious injury is, thankfully, very rare. ABS data reveals Australians drove a total of 190 billion kilometres in the 12 months to October 31, 2001. In that period, 1757 Australians were killed on the road and around 22,000 were seriously injured (source: ATSB).

That’s a great many kays for not much trauma. The 23,750-odd cases of serious road trauma in 190 billion kilometres equates to one case for every 8 million-odd kilometres, or once in every 530-odd years of normal driving (at 15,000km per annum average). In other words, the odds of it happening are, on average, extremely low; similar to winning Lotto. Increasing the risk by 1.1 per cent, or decreasing it by 0.4 per cent (the odds equivalent to 4WD operation) really doesn’t make an appreciable difference with so many other, larger, factors at play.

In fact, we’re quite happy to let most people drive with a blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.05. The politically correct view is that people who drink with a sub-.05 BAC are drinking ‘responsibly’. Well, do you know where the .05 limit comes from? It was chosen because it was the level at which it was universally agreed by the regulators that the crash risk doubled. That’s right: nobody will bat an eye if you drive down the road at a 0.049 BAC, when the risk of crashing is officially 100 per cent higher than when you’re stone-cold sober, but the lunatic fringe gets extremely upset if your 4WD raises the ambient level of risk by just over one per cent.

And try this: In a study of 700 crash victims, correlated with telephone records, the George Institute for International Health at the University of Sydney recently revealed that talking on a hand-held mobile phone quadrupled a driver’s crash risk. (Making it, presumably 401.1 per cent if you’re doing it in a 4WD…) As everyone who drives knows, this practice is an epidemic. The British Medical Journal worryingly concluded that talking hands-free does almost nothing to reduce the risk. Its study revealed crash risk jumped 3.8 times when drivers talk hands-free on their mobiles.

We live in an age where people who drive and talk hands-free are considered by the majority to be doing the ‘safe’ thing (‘only’ a 280 per cent hike in crash risk), alongside those who drink ‘responsibly’ and drive (100 per cent elevation in crash risk). Presumably, one can even do both with impunity, despite the eight-fold crash-risk hike.

However, those who operate a 4WD are prosecuted in the court of public opinion – apparently with no appeals process. If you can drink ‘responsibly’ under .05 BAC and talk ‘responsibly’ if you do so hands-free, you can certainly choose to drive a 4WD responsibly, given the relative risks.

Perhaps the most telling statistic about the relative risk posed by 4WDs on Australian roads is their absence from the Federal Government’s National Road Safety Strategy, which is the official 10-year blueprint targetting a 40 per cent reduction in road death by 2010. How will we achieve that? Safer roads will generate a 19 per cent improvement, while higher levels of occupant protection will account for a 10 per cent improvement. Nine per cent more will come from improved road user behaviour, with new technology to reduce human error accounting for the balance of 2 per cent. The 4WD problem is not targetted — because there really isn’t one.