Safer roads: 10 things we know (but keep arguing about anyway)

ANOTHER BAD summer. No, not the jellyfish or the algae. The road crashes. Over the official holiday period, 17 people died on our roads. Assistant Police Commissioner Bruce O’Brien described it as “horrendous”.

In other news this week, an independent report commissioned by the Ministry of Transport has revealed that a big part of the problem is the police themselves, along with the transport agency Waka Kotahi.

The study, by the consultancy Martin Jenkins, found that senior managers in both agencies have a “good understanding” of the strategy required to reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries (DSIs) on our roads.

But underneath them, at the level of implementation, their organisations are simply not carrying out that strategy well enough.

To be clear. We actually know how to reduce the road toll. Our agencies are just not doing the mahi. At least, not effectively enough to make a difference.

Why? Some of the work is more complex than expected. Also, there’s competition for funds and resources from other priorities: saving lives on the roads isn’t seen as important enough by many police officers and transport officials.

And there’s a lack of political will. Effective measures to reduce the number of people dying on our roads are often seen as unpopular. This year, which is election year for mayors and councils, that problem is getting worse.

There’s been a lot of commentary about all this. I wrote a five-part series on road safety strategies that ran in this paper in the first week of January. Former transport minister Steven Joyce weighed in and last weekend the current minister, Michael Wood, did too. All the stories produced long strings of comments, letters to the editor and some spirited debate on social media.

The world is full of experts, all keen to share their knowledge.

But the thing about road safety is that the world is also full of empirical observation, rigorously conducted studies and real-world evidence of what works and what doesn’t.

We don’t need to keep arguing, although we do it anyway, because some things are now very clear. Here are 10 of them.

1. Road to Zero works

Road to Zero is Waka Kotahi’s plan for reducing deaths and serious injuries on our roads, adopted in 2018. It’s a local version of the Swedish-inspired Vision Zero programme.

It proposes, as the agency’s Road to Zero manager Tara MacMillan puts it, that we think of serious road crashes the way we think of plane crashes: they’re all unacceptable.

It sets out a comprehensive approach, including safer road design, rules for safer road use, better driving standards, safer cars and better enforcement of the rules. And it sets specific goals: for New Zealand, the first big target is a 40 per cent reduction in DSIs by 2030.

Vision Zero works. MacMillan calls it “aspirational”: no one thinks we could suddenly have no serious crashes. But it has led to significant drops in serious crashes overseas and already seems to be doing the same here. The data is complicated by the impact of Covid lockdowns and travel restrictions, but, to date, the trend line is heading in the right direction (see graph).

The programme recognises that drivers will make mistakes. Many people have objected to that, arguing that it’s defeatist. Instead, they say, road safety should focus on the relatively small number of people who deliberately break the rules and cause most of the damage.

So here’s a surprise. In a “first of its kind” study by the AA in 2018, most serious crashes were not caused by a driver breaking the rules.

About 70 per cent of the drivers who crashed, according to Simon Douglas, then the AA’s research foundation manager, “were generally following the rules of the road, but they made a mistake or poor decision, or something unexpected happened”.

They weren’t drunk or speeding. Instead, they might have just drifted off the road or across the centreline, perhaps because of inattention or fatigue.

This is important. We all think we’re good drivers and the problem is all those other fools. But Road to Zero recognises the folly in that. Its strategy is to reduce the risk of mistakes happening and the likelihood of serious harm when they do happen.

Waka Kotahi’s own surveys reveal that 87 per cent of us haven’t heard of Road to Zero yet, despite it being in place since 2018. And yet 44 per cent of us agree that the acceptable number of deaths on the roads is none.

You can look at that in two ways. Most people think it’s okay that some of us will die on the roads this year and every year: that’s depressing. Or: even without effective publicity, nearly half of us already agree with the goal. That’s promising.

2. December is the cruellest month

December is a very busy month for what’s known as VKDs: vehicle kilometres driven. Everyone rushes everywhere, albeit slowly, because of the congestion, and we’re all so frazzled by stress and anxiety we have more crashes.

And there’s all the drunk driving, and then a big week of horrendous holiday traffic. The next worst month, for most of the same reasons, is November.

Reducing VKDs is a primary goal of both road safety and climate change strategies. If we could just learn to use our cars less.

In Auckland, on some nights before Christmas, the trains and buses are free. Why not trial that everywhere, for the whole of November and December?

As for Covid, it’s no surprise that the data reveals low crash rates during lockdowns: see April 2020 and August 2021. But how disappointing is it to see those rates go straight back up again afterwards.

Above all, perhaps, the data points clearly to the periods when massive enforcement of the rules is needed. Before Christmas and after lockdown. But it hasn’t been happening.

3. Enforcement is essential

Many people believe road-safety campaigns are revenue-gathering exercises in disguise, with the focus on speed being nothing more than an easy way to fine drivers. It’s as if they think of driving as a game where the object is to outwit the officials trying to stop them breaking the rules.

We don’t usually think about crime like that – why should driving be any different?

As for the police themselves, they’re funded to have 1070 staff who spend at least 90 per cent of their time on road policing. That’s down from 1242 in 2016 and 1353 before that. But the Martin Jenkins report found that even with the reduced numbers, perhaps 30 per cent of road policing staff are regularly reassigned to other work.

Police Commissioner Andrew Coster talks about “making changes” and “adjusting our systems”, with a new Safe Roads Control Strategy that will focus on prevention and enforcement. But there’s little sign of it happening yet.

Enforcement is critical. Over half the road deaths in the first part of 2021 involved people not wearing seatbelts and about a third involved alcohol. People don’t break these rules from ignorance. They do it because they think they won’t be caught.

4. Cameras are critical

Roadside cameras are critical to this. In 2019, we had only 2.2 cameras per 100,000 people in this country, compared with 11 in Sweden, and those we do have are being underused.

The current situation is so absurd, Waka Kotahi will be taking over the operation of cameras from the police, to see if it can make a difference. The agency plans to double the number of cameras, from about 110 to over 200, and to keep them busy.

But that’s still less than was originally planned. In 2018, Road to Zero was going to triple the number of cameras and have them all in operation by now. Instead, the handover won’t be complete before the middle of 2023 and the new cameras will take three years to arrive.

This slow progress is disturbing. Cameras make a big difference: when they were first introduced in New South Wales, there was a 71 per cent reduction in speeding, leading to an 89 per cent reduction in deaths at the relevant locations.

They don’t call them speed cameras anymore, by the way. They’re safety cameras now, and they’ll snap a range of illegal behaviours, including people not wearing seatbelts and drivers using their mobile phones.

5. Speed does matter

How about this. There’s a part of New Zealand where the death rate on the roads, per 100,000 people, is 16. That’s more than twice as bad as our national average of 7.8, according to World Health Organisation data from 2018.

And that, in turn, compares badly with a European Union average of 5 and national rates in Sweden and Switzerland of just 2.8 and 2.7 respectively.

The worst region in New Zealand is Northland.

It’s true, Sweden and Switzerland have better roads, more enforcement, perhaps less of a car hoon culture. But it’s hard to get away from this: when Sweden reduced the speed limit from 90km/h to 80km/h on the most dangerous parts of its state road network, the number of deaths on those roads fell by about 40 per cent.

People didn’t even drive 10km/h slower. The reduction was more like 3km/h. But it was enough to generate a massive change in the fatality stats.

It’s been a similar story elsewhere. In Victoria, Australia, an increase in the speed limit on some roads, from 100km/h to 110km/h, raised the crash rate by 25 per cent. They reduced it again, and the rate fell by 19 per cent.

Dave Cliff, formerly with the New Zealand Police and now running the Global Road Safety Partnership for the Red Cross in Switzerland, says there’s a useful rule of thumb. It’s this: “A 5 per cent decrease in average speed leads to approximately a 10 per cent decrease in all injury crashes and a 20 per cent decrease in fatal crashes.”

The European Traffic Safety Council reported in 2019: “Countries with a significantly lower road mortality rate than the European Union average … apply a 70 or 80 km/hour standard speed limit on rural, non-motorway roads.”

And yet Waka Kotahi’s plans to introduce more speed reductions on rural and other non-motorway open roads in New Zealand ran into protest at every turn.

“It’ll be bad for business,” said one Hawke’s Bay politician this week, opposing a proposed reduction to 80km/h on the extremely dangerous Napier-Taupō road. He also said, “It might discourage tourists.”

And in Northland itself, Far North deputy mayor Ann Court told the Northern Advocate, “I think Northlanders will be absolutely outraged.”

She added, “I am not opposed to speed limit reductions where they are justified, but a blanket 80km/h across Northland in lieu of road safety improvements is punitive.”

With 16 deaths per 100,000 people, is there really anywhere in Northland where a lower speed limit is not justified?

“It would be ridiculous, for example, to have to drive at 80km/h on the Waipū straights,” Court said.

In fact, there have been regular fatalities on the Waipū straights.

Court is right that Northland needs better road maintenance. It’s just one more way in which the region has been neglected for decades. But it’s not an either/or with speed limits.

Last year the World Bank took an in-depth and peer-reviewed look at “what works and what does not work” in road safety.

The result was a Guide for Road Safety Interventions, which states, “There is a direct, causal link between speed and safety outcomes. Indeed, there are no other risk factors that have such a substantial and pervasive impact on safety as speed. Speed has an impact on both the likelihood of a crash occurring and severity of the outcome when crashes do occur.”

A direct, causal link. No other risk factors are as important.

Steven Joyce, a former transport minister in the National Government, took the opportunity in his Herald column this month to write, “There is a sneaking suspicion that lower speed limits are the favoured tool of the anti-car lobby, who may perhaps not be happy until we are back to cars travelling at walking speed with a little man in front waving a red flag.”

Maybe we need a little man to walk in front of Steven Joyce and Ann Court waving a red flag.

6. Driver education won't save us

If only we trained our drivers better, we wouldn’t have a problem. It’s a very common view. But the evidence is that while some things definitely help, others make the situation worse.

The World Bank study found that “extensive on-road supervised training” has “proven to be effective”. That’s an argument for a graduated licensing system (GLS), although we have that in New Zealand and it’s not rigorous enough: young drivers in their first 6-8 months with a licence are far more likely to crash than any other group.

For GLS to work, it needs more on-road supervised training than is commonly provided here.

What doesn’t work: When road-safety enthusiasts and even experts turn up to your kids’ school to provide driving advice. An OECD report rubbished that approach.

Also bad, according to a slew of studies in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand: anti-skid training. The problem is that “expert” training like this breeds over-confident drivers.

That’s not so if you drive for a living: specialist driver training for truckies, cabbies and the like should be helpful. For the rest of us it can make matters worse.

The Cochrane Library, a highly regarded international organisation that collects healthcare databases, went so far as to say it found “…. no evidence that post-licence driver education is effective in preventing road traffic injuries or crashes … Because of the large number of participants included in the meta-analysis (close to 300,000 for some outcomes) we can exclude, with reasonable precision, the possibility of even modest benefits.”

It seems extremely counterintuitive. But is it really? All those cars that pass you at high speed, maybe ducking in and out of a line of traffic: their drivers are super-confident. You bet they can handle a skid, fast turns, rapid braking, any sudden emergency.

Except, mostly, they can’t.

7. Car design is better and worse

The AA’s 2018 study found that more than 60 per cent of serious crashes involved vehicles more than 14 years old. That makes road safety an equity issue. How big is the moral imperative on Government to make it easier for low-income people not to rely on dangerous older cars?

Safer cars aren’t the only available option: better public transport and better safe cycling options are important too.

There’s good and bad in new car design. ABS brakes, airbags, the amount of reinforcing steel that surrounds the occupants of many large vehicles: there’s no doubt they make you safer. If you’re inside the car.

But the idea these large vehicles – double cab utes and big SUVs, especially – have become a menace to others produces a flood of outrage.

It’s not hard to grasp why big cars do more damage. They’re heavier and take longer to stop. If you’re hit by an ordinary car, you’re likely to go up on the bonnet and roll off. It won’t be pretty but it may not kill you. But when you’re hit by a car that sits high on the road, you go underneath. It probably will kill you.

In Auckland, half of all road deaths are to people not in a car – most of them are hit by a car. This can’t be said enough and it’s not ideology or anti-car campaigning. It’s a real statistic that refers to hundreds of examples of real misery for victims and their loved ones.

Everyone knows the owners of double-cab utes love their cars. But big cars are more dangerous on suburban streets than small cars. Our road rules and road design should limit that danger.

8. Flexible wire barriers save lives

The AA’s 2018 research found that 41 per cent of serious crashes involved a vehicle crossing the centre line on an undivided 100km/h road. The most effective way to prevent this is to put a flexible wire barrier down the middle of the road. The same kind of barrier also help enormously on the sides of the road.

Some people don’t like the sound of this. You can’t do a U-ey. Emergency vehicles could get stuck in traffic. The wires bounce out-of-control cars back on to the road and that’s even more dangerous. Motorcyclists can be cut to bits.

The responses are: so what, not true, not true and not true.

The evidence for the value of wire barriers is astonishingly clear. For example, on the north face of the Brynderwyn Hills and the Kāpiti Coast highway near Wellington, two places that used to be frequent fatality zones, not a single person has died since the barriers were installed.

Why aren’t they being rolled out as fast as possible? The work can be complex: it may, according to a Waka Kotahi spokesperson, “include road widening, moving of utilities, intersection improvements and the provision of turning facilities”.

But really, this goes directly to the issue the Martin Jenkins report raised. Down through its various levels, and especially in some regions, the agency has been reluctant to accept the idea that open roads can be made safer without turning them into big highways.

9. It's not about big highways

The big political debate in road safety is over whether to build a small number of high-profile highways or make a much larger proportion of our open roads safer.

Steven Joyce argues for the former. A decade ago, he says, it was reported that “one third of all state highway traffic travelled on just 714km of highway”.

“If we could ensure all of that traffic was travelling on separated four-lane highways that would represent a major contribution to a safe, efficient roading network and a lower road toll.”

That’s the thinking behind National’s Roads of National Significance, a highway programme he suggests should be extended to roads like “Warkworth to Wellsford, Tauranga to Katikati, Cambridge to Tirau, Rolleston to Ashburton”.

But Waka Kotahi says we have 10,000km of dangerous roads in New Zealand. What happens to the rest?

The alternative is to line those super-busy roads with wire barriers, turn them into “2+1” carriageways, which means a lot more passing lanes, and make their intersections safer.

And then use the hundreds of millions of dollars left over to do some or all of that on much of the rest of the network. With lower speed limits, too.

10. Publicity campaigns can work

The evidence suggests road safety campaigns don’t do much on their own. But when they’re combined with enforcement they really can work.

The value of seatbelts was widely promoted in New South Wales in the 1980s, with punchy ads highlighting the risks of not wearing them. Seatbelt use went up, from a low base, but only by 20 per cent.

Then they turned the campaign focus on to enforcement: the cops were on the lookout. And it was true, the cops really did have a seatbelt blitz. Compliance shot up to over 95 per cent.

Turns out fear of a fine can be more effective than fear of death. Making it personal, as in this ad from Australia, might do that too.

How to get the road toll down

• More safety cameras

• More drink-driving checkpoints

•More cable barriers

• Lower speeds

• Faster transition to safer cars

• More in-car supervised training for learner drivers

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