The road toll – the problem comes back to haunt us!

OPINION: I have written opinion pieces on the road toll on several occasions, the first being some time ago when the general trend was clearly downward and we had an unexpected upward blip in the holiday toll– one Easter I recall it was.  My feeling was this was a one-off and I said I would be surprised if the generally downward trend did not continue

It later became apparent that the upward blip was not a one-off – it represented a distinct reversal of what had been a downward trend.  My assessment at the time was this was a case of increasingly bad or careless behaviour on the part of drivers – illustrated by the often-reckless driving of young people, the general ignoring of the laws on not using mobile phones while driving, and the number of accident victims found to be not wearing seat belts.  (I would add to this the continuing congestion on the roads during peak hours and at holiday times, leading drivers to lose patience and do silly things that result in accidents.)  This is happening despite the increasing safety of modern cars and the general improvement in the quality of our roading.  It is almost as if a switch has been flicked on, which has changed the game in a bad way.

The upward trend has continued and getting the road toll under control has been made a policy target by the Associate Minister of Transport, Julie Anne Genter.

It will be interesting to see what Genter comes up with.  The public statements I have so far seen indicate that her focus will be on improving the roading in established “black spots” on the roading network.  These black spots have been the location of a disproportionately high number of road fatalities.  I’m not convinced that will provide a good answer, although I think it is worth giving it a try.  Expenditure on improving black spots will apparently be at the expense of the motorway programme, which I don’t personally object to although it depends on how much ($$) and at the expense of what particular projects.  I suspect that dealing with black spots will only help a little bit, the fear being that this will simply transfer the accident potential to other parts of the roading network.  The only sure roading based answer I think is to have a median barrier down the centre of every road, and that would be absurdly expensive as well as impracticable in many cases.

I maintain it still all comes back to driver behaviour and the issue is how to get behaviour into the right space.  It has been suggested that more frequent testing might be the answer – at present, you can get a licence at age 16 and the next time you are tested is at age 75.  That is a long time for bad habits to develop.  This might help a bit but is not the answer.  Drivers are naturally on their best behaviour when being tested and that will not necessarily transfer to unsupervised travel on the road. There is also no doubt that alcohol plays a role in many accidents, and I certainly support action to get repeat offenders off the roads but again this only gets at part of the problem.

Some – and we are talking about a small minority – young people are a particular source of concern, with speed being the ultimate problem, particularly if the vehicle gets involved in a pursuit by Police.  One answer is to stop Police pursuits and that has been done in other jurisdictions.  While the evidence suggests that this reduces accidents and certainly stops pursuit-related deaths, the young people concerned will continue to speed and generally ignore the law so will continue to be overly represented in the accident statistics.

Defensive driving courses are an effective tool but probably a case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted if those involved have already offended and been picked up.  And drivers who take this step voluntarily are unlikely to be a major source of problems anyway. Recent research also indicates that having police cars visibly parked at the side of the road has a surprisingly favourable impact on driver behaviour, even for drivers who are behaving within legal bounds already.  However, I don’t think it is known how long the impact lasts and it is impractical and too expensive to dot Police cars all over the country.

Much has been made of the impact of tourists on road accidents, and there is no doubt the accident rate within that group compared with other groups is high.  However, that is not too surprising given the high mileages most tourists can be expected to do and the lack of familiarity with NZ road rules and roads – and overall, I don’t think the impact on the death toll is all that significant.

Even if we can agree that driver behaviour is the core problem, dealing with it is likely to require a number of approaches to be taken and for there to be some significantly innovative thinking about the components of the package.  For sure there is no one silver bullet which will do the job but we need some new bullets, not just the old ones presented in different packaging.

Genter has already held a summit meeting of the involved agencies to talk through the problem and it will be interesting to see what package of approaches they come up with.  If they simply repackage what is being done already or tried in the past, then I don’t think much will be achieved.  What is required is for there to be some serious thinking “outside of the box”, i.e. the trialling if ideas that may seem daft but have not been tried before, or have worked in other situations not connected with transport.  Ideas of that sort are unlikely to come from the transport bureaucracy – their best role is to be a source of data and analysis so that any new ideas can be properly applied and tested.

The real challenge for Genter I think is to look for and find some genuine “outside the box” thinkers using institutions like the universities, the Royal Society and Engineers NZ, or by simply drawing in individuals who have a reputation or bent for problem-solving in other areas.  Fresh thinking is badly needed.


By Bas Walker

This is another of Bas Walker’s posts on GrownUps.  Please look out for his articles, containing his Beachside Ponderings.