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Flood fatalities: What can be done?

Published 27/05/2015

Following recent Australian flooding and during FloodSafe Week, Macquarie University's Risk Frontiers believes more can be done to reduce vehicle-related flood fatalities.

Flooding in recent months on the Australian east coast has seen nine deaths, large numbers of cars written off and at least 200 people rescued by the emergency services.

Many more people were rescued by bystanders ─ most of them from cars. People often drive into floodwaters, and continue to do so despite educational campaigns that have been conducted in recent years and despite frequent reporting of deaths due to drowning on flooded roads. Most survive, but a tragic few do not. Moreover, the lives of rescuers are put at risk.

Over the last 20 years to 2014, the Risk Frontiers Peril Aus database shows that some 70 people have died driving through floodwater in Australia, accounting for close to 40% of all flood fatalities over this period. Motorist flood deaths are clearly a significant problem as these deaths are avoidable.

Why does this happen? Reasons identified include attempting to maintain normal everyday activities; being in a rush; having driven through floodwater in the past; driving through as a form of ‘fun’; evacuating; or simply not thinking about the risk (Becker et al, 2011). Diakakis and Deligiannakis (2013) summarised key factors behind such decisions, as identified in the international literature as: 

  • Age and gender of drivers
  • Familiarity of drivers with the road network
  • Mental and physical condition
  • Blood alcohol levels
  • Risk perception and previous experience
  • Vehicle type
  • Level of flooding
  • Time of day – more at night

Traditionally, we have thought the most likely demographic to drive through floodwater as being young males aged less than thirty-five (Becker et al, 2011, Haynes et al, 2009) although the international literature is by no means unequivocal on this point (Diakakis and Deligiannakis, 2013). The Risk Frontiers PerilAus database also shows that of the motorist flood deaths in the last twenty years the majority were driving four-wheel drive vehicles.

What can be done? Education is part of the solution but by itself is not sufficient. The same is true of training SES and other emergency service personnel in rescue techniques. That said, our investment in saving people from floodwaters has been amply justified by the many rescues conducted lately.

So what else?  As recommended by the Queensland Floods Commission in 2012, a national educational campaign would be appropriate. It would have to deliver sharp, perhaps frightening messages to instil some notion of the dangers that floodwaters pose. Something akin to the recent vivid anti-speeding and anti-smoking campaigns, maybe focused at males who drive 4WD vehicles and concentrating on overcoming manufacturers’ sales advertising.

We should consider regulation as well. In Queensland, police have used driving regulations to charge people with reckless behaviour when they have entered floodwaters, and four years ago a man was found guilty of manslaughter and jailed after he drove on a flooded road, lost control and caused the death of his passenger. In lesser cases, heavy fines and loss of licence would be appropriate. These penalties would need to be advertised to ensure community attention. Likewise, drivers who remove temporary barriers so that their vehicles can pass could be charged: in effect, they have opened the road to others and encouraged further risky behaviour.

Preventative barriers that cannot be moved by motorists could be introduced. Roadside gauges should be marked not just with depth indicators but with symbols designed to demonstrate the risk of entering the water. Guard rails at the sides of roads that are known to be covered by floodwaters should be installed to prevent cars from being washed away. And lighting installed in high risk areas would help to ensure motorists can appreciate the dangers at night.

Insurance companies might consider not paying claims when it is clear that vehicles have been driven recklessly into floods. Beyond that, people could be charged for the cost of their rescues when recklessness can be demonstrated. Such revenue could be reinvested in education campaigns.

No single measure is likely to do the trick. The approach needs to be holistic. It should incorporate numerous initiatives and involve non-traditional stakeholders such as insurance companies, peak motorist bodies, road and traffic management agencies, peak water safety organisations and schools.

The death toll from driving into floods though nothing like that associated with the road toll or some self-induced medical conditions, is not insignificant. The important point is that these deaths are avoidable. And they can be reduced with further innovative effort, preferably nationwide.

Andrew Gissing and Chas Keys - Risk Frontiers (a research and development organisation based at Macquarie University)


We note that PerilAUS is currently being updated with support from the Bushfire & Natural Hazards CRC.


J. Becker, B. Doody, K. Wright, J. McClure & B. Davies (2011) Never drive, ride or walk through floodwater: Pedestrian and motorist behaviour in and around floodwater. Presented at NSW Floodplain Management Authorities Conference, Tamworth, 2011.  

K. Haynes, L. Coates, R. Leigh , J. Handmer , J. Whittaker , A. Gissing , J. McAneney & S. Opper (2009) ‘Shelter-in-place’ vs. evacuation in flash floods, Environmental Hazards, 8:4, 29130

M. Diakakis & G. Deligiannakis (2013) Vehicle-related flood fatalities in Greece, Environmental Hazards, 12:3-4, 278-290

Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry (2012) Queensland Floods Commission Final Report, Queensland Government.

For further information please contact Andrew Gissing ()