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Too many people are dying on our roads

Nearly every day, someone dies on New Zealand’s roads and another seven are seriously injured. New Zealand ranks 29th out of 33 OECD countries for road deaths, with a death rate of 7.9 deaths per 100,000 people. In Norway, the rate is just 2. And it’s getting worse. After a steady decline in the from 1987 to 2013, the trend reversed. Between 2013 and 2018, road deaths increased by 50 per cent. Our road toll costs New Zealand an estimated $5.6 billion each year, when loss of life, disability, vehicle damage, medical and legal costs, and loss of output are accounted for. The causes of accidents are varied — but it’s clear that bad drivers can’t take all the blame. Around half of fatal crashes and two-thirds of serious crashes are caused by ordinary people making mistakes, according to an AA study. And even the most responsible drivers can’t escape the poor choices of others.


Better roads, not better people

For a long time, we’ve focused on driver behaviour — from cracking down on drink-driving to ticketing speeding drivers to those harrowing public ad campaigns. But according to road-safety campaigner Clive Matthew-Wilson, “changing driver behaviour is the least effective way of lowering the road toll”. “New Zealand’s roads are like a staircase with no handrail. You make a mistake, you’re going to get hurt. The number-one priority is to change our roads and vehicles, so simple mistakes don’t turn into tragedies,” he says.

In 1997, Sweden adopted a strategy aimed at ending all road deaths and injuries by making its roads safer. By 2010, Sweden had the lowest death rate in the world.

Matthew-Wilson wants to:

– Introduce median barriers on all major highways within five years, to reduce the consequences of driver error. Currently, only 5 per cent of highways have median barriers. Around 40 per cent of state highways have a two-star safety rating (on a five-star scale).

– Roll out roading upgrades faster. As of May 2020, the government had installed only 18 kilometres of median barriers out of a planned 198 kilometres between 2018 and 2021.

– Make the trucking industry pay to fix the damage that trucks cause to roads. Then use the funds to improve roads and the rail system, so that more freight can be carried by rail. About 80 per cent of road maintenance costs (excluding events like storm damage) are the result of damage caused by trucks. Currently, the industry pays just 23 per cent of the cost of building and maintaining state highways.


Safer roads, fewer tragedies

– More median barriers could reduce road fatalities by a third: 30 per cent of fatalities in the last five years were head-on collisions. Median barriers virtually eliminate the risk of those accidents.

– Fewer trucks would also make a big difference — trucks feature in around 20 per cent of road deaths.

– Safer roads would relieve a huge burden on the taxpayer. The average social cost per fatality is $4.3 million.


We don’t know what’s good for us

– Surveys of AA members show most drivers still think driver behaviour is the most important priority.

– Fixing roads is expensive. New Zealand’s population is half that of Sweden’s, so we have fewer taxable dollars.

– The trucking lobby is a barrier to reforming how freight is transported. “Speeding yobbos are an easy target from a politicians’ point of view. On the other hand, the trucking industry is well organised, very effective and enjoys much sympathy within the rural sector,” Matthew-Wilson says.

– The government aims to reduce road deaths by 40 per cent by 2030 through its Road to Zero strategy, announced in late 2019, which is intended to be based on the Swedish model.

– But despite a 25 per cent boost in road safety spending, the target of 1000 kilometres of median barriers falls well short of Sweden’s 5000 kilometres of divided highway. Driver behaviour also remains a focus area.

– The AA also questions whether the government can deliver road improvements fast enough, given the slow progress of recent transport infrastructure roll-outs. “It’s just that challenge of delivery,” says Dylan Thomsen, an AA spokesperson. “That’s where the rubber meets the road.”

Ollie Neas is a journalist and legal researcher based in Wellington.