It is sad that we have to report on another two flood fatalities this month. These were caused by the extensive flooding in Victoria in early June and once again people drowned in their cars. While it will be up to the coroner to investigate the specific circumstances of these deaths, vehicles entering floodwaters is a regular feature of Australian floods.
I read some interesting Australian research recently (read here) which suggests that in Australia and the United States more than half of flood fatalities are sustained by people in vehicles, where as in Europe the figure is closer to one quarter. The paper identified that middle aged and elderly males are over represented, drugs or alcohol were found in the blood or more than 50% of drivers, most drivers were heading home and most fatalities occurred within 20 km of home. Together, these suggest that often drugs and alcohol impair the judgement of drivers, that a desire to return home is a strong incentive to cross flood waters and that familiarity with roads may result in an underestimation of the risks.
But it still does not explain why the proportions are so much higher in the USA and Australia. However, when you look at the vehicle travel statistics of countries these numbers begin to make more sense. Annual per capita motor vehicle travel in Australia and the USA is 11,000 and 14,000 km respectively compared to less than 7,000 km across European countries. It is interesting to note that the Australian researchers classified 20 km as being close to home. Many of the Europeans that I know would think that is a long way from home.
I think it would be interesting to undertake some further analysis of the Australian fatalities to see what proportion took place on rural roads versus urban roads. I would not be surprised if the greater proportion occurred on rural roads. If you have to drive home on a rural road you are probably driving a considerable distance and possibly crossing numerous waterways. There is little incentive to stay where you are until it stops flooding because there is nowhere to go but to stay in your car. If it is dark, there is probably nothing more than your headlights to give you any sense of what the water is doing and there may be no depth markers.
While there is consistent messaging about the dangers of driving into floodwaters, until we understand the circumstances and motivations of those that do and present them with a more compelling alternative, people will continue to take this risk. Unfortunately, potential loss of life is not a compelling enough motivation for many.