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NZ’s shocking road toll shows it’s time for more median barriers

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On average, 90 New Zealanders die in head-on crashes every year – that’s three Pike Rivers – and 320 are seriously injured.

New Zealanders judge the safety of our roads by the number of deaths. If the toll is lower than the previous year, we assume that traffic safety measures are having the desired effect. If the figures are going the other way, the conclusion is that there’s more to be done.

It’s a natural way of measuring progress, because how else can we do it? But it’s also imperfect and simplistic, for two reasons. The first is that bald numbers utterly fail to convey the awful human cost of road deaths. No one with a scintilla of empathy could fail to have been moved by the heart-wrenching TV interview at Easter with a Hamilton couple who lost their two sons – one just a baby – when their car was rear-ended by a truck on Good Friday, 2018. Their grief was still palpable. And we shouldn’t forget the first responders who must deal with the aftermath. Often they are volunteer firefighters, called away from their everyday activities to scenes of unimaginable horror.

The second reason is that there’s a terrible randomness to the road toll. This has been demonstrated in recent weeks by several catastrophic crashes that claimed multiple victims.

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In the first, on April 1, a family of five died when their car hit a tree near Atiamuri, north of Taupō. On the same day, a mother and her two infants were killed at an intersection in rural Canterbury. And on April 28 – coincidentally, again near Atiamuri – another eight people, including seven from one family, lost their lives in a head-on crash so violent that police initially couldn’t tell how many victims there were.

That crash, which only a nine-year-old boy survived, was the third-equal deadliest on record. Suddenly, the road toll, which in the first months of the year had been tracking downward, took a marked upward lurch.

After the false dawn of 2013, when the annual toll of 253 was the lowest since 1950, we seem to be locked in a bleak upward trajectory: 378 deaths in 2017 and 377 last year, with the trend so far this year pointing to a higher toll still.

Not for the first time, the nation has been plunged into a bout of soul-searching. When a shocking crash occurs, the police grope helplessly for fresh explanations or insights. They can only repeat the same familiar messages: drive according to the conditions, avoid distractions such as mobile phones, don’t drive when drunk or tired and fasten your seat belts. All of them remain apt, but New Zealanders collectively seem wilfully resistant.

There have been improvements. Cars and highways are getting safer. Roundabouts have eliminated hazardous intersections and passing lanes help deter dangerous overtaking, although at the risk of traffic having to converge suddenly at speed when the extra space runs out. Rumble strips alert drivers when they are straying off the road.

Yet still, whether through bad judgment or sheer recklessness, drivers – and sometimes passengers – make elementary, life-ending mistakes. In the April 1 crash, not all the car occupants were wearing seat belts. And in the April 28 accident, police said the driver of the vehicle in which seven family members died appeared to have crossed double yellow lines.

Although governments can never legislate to prevent folly, that doesn’t mean New Zealand must continue to wring its hands impotently every time a horror crash leads the six o’clock news. One blindingly obvious means of reducing the road toll is to accelerate the installation of wire-rope median barriers, which have repeatedly proven themselves as a way of preventing the head-on crashes that are the principal cause of death and injury on our roads. They’re not cheap, at $2 million a kilometre, but the NZ Transport Agency says anecdotal evidence suggests they already save one life a week.

The average social cost of a single fatal crash is put at just over $5 million and a serious-injury crash costs nearly $1 million. On average, 90 New Zealanders die in head-on crashes every year – that’s three Pike Rivers – and 320 are seriously injured.

As the Americans say, do the math. Prioritising the installation of median barriers on accident-prone stretches of highway is something to which all political parties should commit.

This article was first published in the May 11, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.