Fact sheet: The social model approach to road safety

The National Road Safety Strategy 2021-30 takes a new approach in its delivery—the social model approach.

The Social Ecological Model was developed in the 1970s by sociologists and has been used in areas of public health and criminology to support better outcomes. Its application to road safety was presented at the Australasian College of Road Safety Conference in 2019.

Road safety is everyone's responsibility, it is not solely a transport issue and not solely a government problem. It cuts across health and social services sectors, law enforcement, education and justice, planning and industry, and through everyday activities—we all use the road.

In order to make a lasting difference to road trauma, long-term cultural change is needed to make road safety ‘business as usual’ in all local and state road authorities, as well as fostering a road safety culture across Australian society. The social model leverages influence as the key element to bring about change.

What is the social model?

The social model comprises five layers, with the individual at its heart. It recognises that individuals are influenced beyond their knowledge and skills. What resonates with one individual may not with another, as we all have different starting points based on our background, environment and the culture that surrounds us.

It expands the influence and responsibility for an individual's own behaviour to a greater ability to positively influence other individuals, the organisations they are members of, and other organisations they have contact with.

Organisations are expected to take a greater responsibility for actively prioritising safety for the environment in which they have influence. Community organisations are able to influence their volunteers, stakeholders and audiences to advocate for change to local, state and federal governments.

A successful example of the social model approach can be found in South Australia's Smarter Travel at Work program. This program aims to nudge workplace behaviour though positive engagement by encouraging organisations to change the way they manage workplace travel and guiding them with practical tools to achieve this. Organisations involved include councils, not for profits, government agencies and businesses.

Through policy setting, regulation and investment, local, state and federal governments are able to progress systemic change across society.

The social model points to behavioural change for individuals through the positive adoption of influencing factors by alignment with their workplaces, clubs, firms they do business with, the communities to which they belong and the levers available to government. Behavioural change is required in order to lift our road safety culture and the social model approach is expected to complement training and education to achieve greater success. It is expected that the model will support the long-term cultural change and attitudinal change towards road safety needed to make road safety ‘business as usual’ in all local and state road authorities, as well as fostering a road safety culture across Australian society.

The social model provides an additional layer to support road safety action in practical terms, working alongside the priorities and the safe system approach to allow for a more systematic reach in addressing cultural change and responsibility, and reach areas that have not been influenced in the past. It can be used to influence delivery of each element of the safe system approach, for example businesses to select safest vehicles.

The layers of the social model

social model layers - individual functions; interpersonal functions; organisational response; community approach; system/public policy approach

Applying the social model to road safety

Influence is a key factor in the social model approach. This means each individual and organisation using their tools and influence to create outcomes that result in broader road safety awareness and benefits.

The social model will allow the Strategy to reach beyond the areas that have been traditionally involved in road safety. As this approach is new, it will take time to implement and how it is used will grow over the life of the Strategy.

An example of how we are using the social model in the System/Public Policy layer is the holistic approach to policy settings through the Inter-Departmental Committee on Road Safety. Led by the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications, it includes: the federal portfolio agencies of Prime Minister and Cabinet; Treasury; Finance; Education, Skills and Employment; Health; Australian Federal Police; Attorney-General's; and the National Indigenous Australians Agency. By working together to embed road safety in each department's policy agenda we will create a better understanding of the problem we're trying to solve, the potential policy levers and the challenges we will need to overcome in order to be successful at a systemic public policy level.

Further examples of the social model working in practice may include:

  • Working with specialist car clubs, motoring clubs and those with a particular interest in motor racing to reach out to their membership groups to shift perceptions and gain acceptance for known road safety solutions.  
  • Sporting clubs adopting a road safety policy, including for travel to and from games with senior players and extended families acting as role models and, over time, the cultural influences of the sports club influencing more positive attitudes towards road safety.
  • Working with industry bodies to engage businesses to have a road safety policy and treat vehicles (and road space) as any other workplace for their employees.
  • Engaging national bodies to adopt road safety policies in respect of their grey fleet, volunteer drivers and behaviours.

Layers of the social model applied to road safety

Social model layer Example of application to road safety
System/Public Policy Approach Office of Road Safety; state/territory transport and road agencies; local government road network managers; whole of government approaches

Legislation, regulation, developing and setting policy, targeted funding and investment, delivery of infrastructure, public transport provision and ensuring that laws and government managed systems are geared to preventing death and injury.

Community Approach Advocacy and addressing issues from a grass-roots level, led by community organisations to create change to facilitate the adoption of a positive road safety culture and targeted or niche groups to engage.

Extends beyond road safety specific organisations to include community clubs (sporting, interest groups), volunteer organisations.

Organisational Response Resources and creating an authorising environment to make safety a priority.

Road safety priority and policy for firms, agencies and organisations of all sizes, putting in place policies and systems to ensure safe road travel, or even defer road travel to make use of alternative meeting types.

Interpersonal Functions Leveraging relationships at individual, organisational and sector levels to influence the prevention of injury and bring a safety focus for others.  Build effective and influential leadership from within agencies.
Individual Functions Taking responsibility for one's own road safety. Working with individuals through the layers of the social model to find approaches which resonate with individuals.