Does anyone really know how to cut the number of deaths on our roads?

by The Listener / 16 January, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Road death toll

Photo/Getty Images

The road toll for 2017 was 380 – 53 more than for 2016 and the highest figure since 2009.

Interviewed for the final Morning Report of 2017, Assistant Police Commissioner Sandra Venables, who is in charge of road policing, was understandably disheartened that the road toll was, at that point, the highest since 2010. She admitted she could only repeat the same holiday refrain the police have been telling us for years: drive according to the conditions, wear seat belts, don’t drink and drive, keep your speed down and avoid distractions, in particular the use of mobile phones.

“Why are these messages not getting through?” interviewer Susie Ferguson wanted to know. “I think they are,” Venables replied. Then, after a moment’s pause, she corrected herself. “I truly don’t know,” she admitted.

It was an admirable, if dispiriting, display of frankness from an organisation that has too often pretended that it has all the answers. Over the past decade, road users have been subjected to an almost constant barrage of road-safety advertising and earnest lectures from the police at the start of every holiday period. No one can say those campaigns have been useless, because things might have been far worse without them. Yet the statistics make plain that we are virtually back where we started. The road toll for 2017 was 380 – 53 more than for 2016 and the highest figure since 2009.

The blackest year on our roads was 1973, when 843 people were killed. By 2013, it was down to just 253, the lowest since 1950. What made the difference? Safer cars, better roads and enforcement measures all played their part. Changes in social manners made a difference, too. Among other things, it ceased to be socially acceptable to drive home from the pub with a skinful. And when crashes happen, swift expert medical care now saves people who would once have died.

But it’s obvious that the causes of road fatalities are more frustratingly complex than police like to admit. More cars are on the road than ever before and more people are driving, some with little open-road experience. Heavy traffic volumes steadily increase and there’s a relatively new high-risk group of older males riding extremely fast motorbikes. Too many of us are still texting while driving and young men with delusions of invulnerability kill themselves trying to outrun the police. And the tyranny of our topography has given us narrow, twisty roads.

When the toll drops, the police are happy to attribute it to the effectiveness of their strategies, but when it rises, they can only wring their hands. The latest upsurge has exposed the fallacy that tactics such as drink-driving blitzes, TV commercials and crackdowns on speed can be relied on to bring road deaths down.

We were assured that introducing a tougher blood-alcohol limit in 2014 would reduce the road toll, but in fact the reverse happened: in the year after the new limit came into effect, the number of alcohol-affected drivers involved in fatal crashes substantially increased.

Now the Government has announced $22.5 million of new spending on 30 high-risk regional roads. It may make a difference; it may not. But many will share the view of road-safety campaigner Clive Matthew-Wilson that the police should more actively target the small group of persistent offenders who drive while drunk or high and don’t wear seat belts.

Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter, meanwhile, wants to take more people out of cars altogether and put them on bicycles or public transport. That’s classic Green Party idealism, but instead of state-imposed solutions that limit people’s rights to make their own choices, New Zealanders may well prefer environmentally friendly electric cars.

There’s fanciful talk of adopting a zero road-toll target, as Sweden has done. We could imitate the Swedes and install median barriers on all highways – but at what cost?

And, of course, there are advertising campaigns. Official concern about the road toll makes for good business for ad agencies. But much of the mayhem on the road is directly attributable to human fallibility and caprice – poor judgment, distractions, wilful risk-taking, impatience – that isn’t easily corrected.

This is not an argument against continuing with present strategies, which have achieved incremental improvements. But human behaviour isn’t controlled by the edicts of road-safety authorities. Until safer self-driving cars get here, there is no substitute for personal responsibility – and constant vigilance.

This editorial was first published in the January 13, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

How to lose weight without a diet
87141 2018-02-25 00:00:00Z Nutrition

How to lose weight without a diet

by Jennifer Bowden

"The irony is the intentional pursuit of weight loss – dieting, in other words – is actually a predictor of future weight gain."

Read more
Baby boomers are rethinking retirement for a later-life reboot
87313 2018-02-24 00:00:00Z Social issues

Baby boomers are rethinking retirement for a later…

by Sally Blundell

The biggest cohort of baby boomers is reaching retirement age – and many are not planning a quiet dotage.

Read more
School shootings and Russian indictments
87455 2018-02-24 00:00:00Z World

School shootings and Russian indictments

by Joanne Black

Slaughter in a school and Russian social-media mischief: the US is under siege.

Read more
Beck to go back to basics at Auckland City Limits
87417 2018-02-24 00:00:00Z Profiles

Beck to go back to basics at Auckland City Limits

by James Belfield

Before headlining Auckland City Limits, Beck talks about celebrating his musical past on stage and on record.

Read more
Islands of the Gulf: How the Hauraki has changed
87427 2018-02-24 00:00:00Z Television

Islands of the Gulf: How the Hauraki has changed

by Fiona Rae

A broadcaster revisits her mother’s iconic Islands of the Gulf TV series to see what’s changed since the 60s.

Read more
Hokianga's Wild West fest's unusual way of fundraising
86388 2018-02-24 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Hokianga's Wild West fest's unusual way of fundrai…

by Peter De Graaf

Once a year, the Wild West saddles up and rides into Waimamaku for a day of highway robbery.

Read more
Back on track: $60m to go into regional rail
87519 2018-02-23 14:43:30Z Economy

Back on track: $60m to go into regional rail

by Jane Patterson

Five regions will receive just over $60 million for rebooting rail in the first chunk of money from the Provincial Growth Fund.

Read more
Ricky Houghton is about finding innovative solutions to the issues facing Māori
87510 2018-02-23 14:21:31Z Profiles

Ricky Houghton is about finding innovative solutio…

by Clare de Lore

No government on their own can fix the problems facing Māori in the Far North, warns Local Hero of the Year Ricky Houghton.

Read more