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

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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.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

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.