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The fuel tax's unintended benefit

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Ironically, the one Government policy that may reduce the road toll could be one that was not intended to have this effect.

Most of us would agree with Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter when she says the number of fatalities on our roads is unacceptable. But just as New Zealanders may also agree that rates of child poverty are too high, it is far harder to find a consensus on the steps that should be taken to reduce casualties.

Genter has said that the Government will investigate adopting a target of zero deaths and serious injuries on the roads. It will also no longer talk about the road toll, she said, but instead refer to the tally of fatalities as “road deaths”.

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Just as with child poverty, neither setting a new target nor giving the problem a different name will save a single life. It is not semantics that are killing road users – or children in their homes. The public is probably tiring of excessive rhetoric.

That is not to suggest that Genter is not sincere; she is, as every transport minister has been before her. In the cases of child poverty and road safety, successive ministers in successive administrations have committed themselves to finding solutions. The answers remain elusive, because governments can go only so far in legislating to improve human behaviour. MPs can pass laws that cajole, nudge, admonish and punish, but laws alone do not stop a person who has no self-control lashing out against a stepchild or prevent a teenager piling his friends into a stolen car at 2am.

Genter says the Government will investigate new minimum standards for imported vehicles and perhaps take another look at the graduated driver-licensing system. It can do that and put more rumble strips and barriers in places where it appears they would make a difference. But the biggest cause of accidents is not roads or cars – it’s drivers.

Speeding and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol are two of the biggest contributors to road fatalities. Yet it is already illegal to drive when inebriated or under the influence of drugs. It is already an offence to drive over the speed limit or in a manner that is unsafe for the conditions. It is already a requirement for drivers and passengers to wear seat belts and for drivers not to have a phone in their hands. Most drivers comply, week after tragic week, but we see that laws do not prevent some people driving while distracted, carelessly or recklessly.

If the laws already exist but are too often flouted, more compliance would seem to be the answer. But the country cannot afford a police officer at every intersection. Also, though we accept random checkpoints if they are occasional, New Zealanders are quick to decry overzealous scrutiny, especially since most drivers are doing nothing wrong.

Last year, 380 people were killed on the roads, compared with 327 the previous year. The rising toll probably reflects that there are more people and cars on the roads. Ministry of Transport figures show that in 2016, there were 22 accidents causing injury for every 100 million kilometres travelled. It was the same figure in 2015 and was slightly higher – at 24 injuries per 100 million kilometres travelled – in 2011.

There should be no complacency found in statistics showing that our driving may not actually be getting worse if those statistics show only that our driving has been bad all the time. However, the figures suggest that, ironically, the one Government policy that may reduce the road toll could be one that was not intended to have this effect: the fuel tax. If an increased fuel price means people take fewer trips, drive shorter distances or are priced out of private transport altogether, simply reducing the number of kilometres travelled could see a fall in accidents.

This unintended benefit will not mean all will agree with the Government’s approach, especially if the tax hits the poor hardest in driving costs and puts up the prices of goods and services. The tax may well lower the road toll, but ultimately, New Zealanders need to stop looking to the Government to fix every problem that citizens create.

The answer to safer, better, more considerate and responsible driving lies with each of us, every time we get behind the wheel. 

This article was first published in the April 21, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.