Honk for a speed cameraby The Listener
We’ve lowered the speed and alcohol tolerance for drivers, yet as if on some perverse cue, the road toll has risen.
Given the official line on these apparent road-safety imperatives, it’s an outcome staggering in its contrariness.
The seasonal national conversation about how we drive has accordingly been spiked by an unwelcome degree of cynicism. Many drivers feel unduly brow-beaten by the police’s holiday lectures since apparently their crackdowns were not the promised magic bullet.
One knee-jerk public reaction has been to blame the foreigner. The Ministry of Transport says overseas licence holders caused 4.8% of crashes in 2014, the latest analysed data available, up from 2.1% in 1987. But only 1.5% of accidents were caused by bewilderment at local rules. Increasing use of directional arrows on highways will be helping, but actually, locals caused 10 times more accidents by failing to keep left than visitors did. We cannot scapegoat tourists.
In any case, what we call “the road toll” is misleading. Our true incidence of road deaths and crashes is in long-term decline. Taking account of the population and car numbers, we’ve cut our fatality rate by 75% since 1989. According to Infometrics research for the Ministry of Transport, if we still had the same death toll per unit of travel as in 1990, there would have been 12,300 more deaths between then and 2012.
Safer driving is only a modest part of the reason. Having safer vehicles and fewer motorcycles on the road has saved nearly half of those lives. Road improvements – such as rumble strips and replacing T-junctions with roundabouts – have saved a further 19%. Driver behaviour – less drinking, speeding, texting – accounts for just 36% of the avoided deaths.
And we’re improving on that. New car technology increasingly forces safety on us, governing following distances and braking for us. Before long, cars will actively deter us from speeding and report us if we do. We’ve gone from alcohol causing 42% of fatal and 22% of injury crashes in 1990 to 23% and 13% respectively. And from the 1980s to 2014, speed has gone from being a factor in 40% of fatal crashes to 29%; and 17% for injuries.
So should the authorities still be thrashing the speed, drugs and booze message when those factors are in decline? Distractedness is increasing as a contributing factor in crashes, as is fatigue, estimated now to be causing 10-25% of crashes.
Though research shows our hard-hitting anti-drink and speed campaigns have had a positive effect, the overall approach has come to feel like something that is done to us rather than for us. Targeting risk profiles, such as the push to ensure all young drivers get licences, is surely better than broad-brush shaming.
But police and the MoT shouldn’t ignore the rather celebratory public response to the blasting of a notoriously lucrative Wellington speed camera with a shotgun over Christmas. There was a social-media outpouring against the siting of speed cameras. The ministry reaffirmed its camera placement is determined by accident black spots, not revenue-gathering. Bluntly, not everyone buys it.
Granted, the remedy is not to speed – and if people weren’t breaking the law, there would be no revenue gathering. But it is imperative that, in general, the public sees driver policing as “a fair cop” and respects the system’s integrity.
A good start would be to ask people where they feel at risk on the roads, and what they think would help. Any two locals can agree on where the scarily low-vis or sun-strike spots are and where people are apt to take corners too fast or cross centre lines.
These are places where people actually desire speed humps, cameras and policing. Honk if you want a speed camera. The authorities may be surprised if they were more open in their analysis of road safety and moved away from shrill driver-shaming. It’s likely they’d get better results by engaging with drivers, and even giving them a pat on the back.
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