Autonomous vehicles, child restraints and food and water security: bright ideas attract funding

Three leading George Institute researchers have together scored just over $2.5 million for innovative projects in the latest round of National Health and Medical Research Council Ideas Grants.

The funding, which commences in 2021 and runs over several years, will help drive solutions to some of Australia’s pressing but preventable health challenges.

Harnessing the benefits of autonomous vehicles for health – Professor Simone Pettigrew

The transport sector is in a phase of rapid change due to the emergence of autonomous vehicles (AVs), which have enormous potential to save lives by preventing car crashes. But AVs will affect other aspects of human health, including many factors contributing to the risk of noncommunicable diseases, such as physical activity and diet.

Simone explained that if these factors are not considered in the planning process, there may be unintended consequences of the adoption of this new technology on population health.

“It is critical that appropriate planning processes are undertaken as early as possible to prevent cities of the future being designed around AVs rather than people,” she said.

This project aims to facilitate the inclusion of health considerations in AV implementation through extensive consultations with community members and policy makers and then embedding the findings into AV planning processes.

User-centred design of a technology-mediated, theory driven, intervention package to reduce incorrect use of child car restraints – Associate Professor Julie Brown

Incorrect use of child restraints and inappropriate use of adult seat belts are widespread and have caused longstanding problems around the world. In Australia more than two million children are at increased risk of injury due to a lack of understanding about how to solve these problems.

“By law every Australian child must use a restraint in a car but while more than 90 percent of children under 12 use them, more than half continue to do so incorrectly, putting these children at three times the risk of injury in a crash,” said Julie.

Julie’s project aims to develop and optimise an efficient, cost-effective intervention providing instructions on the correct use of child car restraints, as well as promoting behaviours leading to correct restraint of children in cars.

“There is an urgent need to find tangible solutions reduce the unacceptably high number of Australian children at increased risk of road traffic injury,” she added.

Food and Water for Life: co-creation and evaluation of sustainable innovations to strengthen food and water security – Professor Jacqui Webster

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have strong connections to land and waters, and disruption to this has seen communities bear a disproportionate burden of non-communicable diseases. Lack of access to fresh and healthy food, exacerbated by low-quality water supplies, are some of the biggest contributors.

Jacqui and her team have been working with Yuwaya Ngarra-li, a community-led partnership between the Dharriwaa Elders Group and UNSW Sydney, and the NSW government, to find solutions to food and water insecurity, including to the high sodium levels in the bore water in Walgett, NSW, since 2018.

Jacqui said that while most salt in the average diet came from food, high salt levels in drinking water was a genuine health concern in some communities.

"The Walgett community has identified food and water insecurity as a key barrier to improving poor diets – this research will support the community to address this important issue."

This project will improve the nutrition and health outcomes of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in Australia. It will use community-led processes that take account of Indigenous rights and knowledge to implement and evaluate sustainable community solutions.

Christine Corby, CEO of Walgett Medical Services and one of the Chief Investigators on the program said,

“This is an incredible opportunity to build on existing community resilience to mitigate future risks to food and water security. Activities will include improving the fresh healthy food options in the school canteens, cafes and food outlets, establishing a community garden network and improving drinking water quality.”