Transport Matters

New Zealand Centre for Political Research

The New Zealand Centre for Political Research is a web-based think tank that takes a research-based approach to public policy matters and encourages the free and open debate of political issues. www.nzcpr.com

Last year the Wellington region had the lowest level of road deaths per capita in the country. According to figures compiled by the Ministry of Transport, out of the 298 fatalities nationally, there were 12 deaths or 2.4 for every 100,000 residents across the Wellington region. Auckland was in second place with 39 deaths, or 2.5 per 100,000 residents.

Wellington’s low road toll can be largely attributed to their focus on improving the region’s problem roads. In particular, $15 million was invested in the construction of a 3.5-kilometre median barrier on the dangerous Centennial Highway south of Paekakariki. In the 10 years before the barrier was installed in 2005, there had been 15 fatal and serious crashes, but since being built, there has not been a single death, in spite of being struck more than 100 times.

While better designed roads and safer cars are the key to reducing road deaths, breakthrough technology that has the potential to virtually eliminate road fatalities is not far away. As Matt Ridley explained on Breaking Views, “Google’s prototype self-driving cars have now covered more than 700,000 miles on public roads with only one accident — which happened when a human took the controls. Getting out of a driverless car, after a restful journey working and reading, then telling it to park and come back when you need it, would bring the luxury of the chauffeured plutocrat within reach of ordinary people. Driverless lorries on the motorways could be confined to night-time operation, leaving the roads clear for cars in the day.”

Lord Ridley says driverless cars may be commercially available after 2017 and that the testing of self-driving cars was due to begin in Britain this month.

While still too high, New Zealand’s road toll has dropped significantly over the years. When records began in 1952, our population of just over 2 million people owned around half a million cars with 5.5 road deaths and 150 injuries per 10,000 vehicles.  In 2013, almost 4.5 million people owned over 3.3 million cars with 0.8 road fatalities and 35 injuries per 10,000 vehicles.

Internationally, New Zealand ranked 15th equal in a study of 30 countries, with 0.9 deaths per 10,000 vehicles in 2012. Of the 308 deaths, 21 percent of the fatal accidents occurred on urban roads, 3 percent on motorways, 51 percent on “A-level” roads outside urban areas, and 25 percent on other roads.

The fact that the number of road deaths on our well constructed motorways – without on-coming traffic – is so low highlights the importance of road design in saving lives. It also reinforces the government’s good sense in prioritising the building of new motorways and the upgrading of roads in accident-prone areas of high traffic density.

Not only do better roads save lives, they also improve productivity by reducing travel times and opening up new economic opportunities in areas that have previously been held back by poor transport links.

Better roads also save money. With the social cost of a road fatality estimated to be around $4 million, a serious injury $420,000, and a minor injury $22,000, Ministry of Transport puts the total cost of all motor vehicle crashes in 2013 at $3.73 billion.

Looking into the 2013 crash statistics, 50 percent of the 254 fatalities were the drivers of the vehicles, 19 percent were passengers, 15 percent were motorcyclists, 12 percent pedestrians, and 3 percent were cyclists.

Almost three-quarters of all fatalities occurred on the open road. Around 60 percent of fatal crashes occurred in the daytime, 3 percent during twilight hours, and 36 percent at night. The vast majority of accidents occurred during fine weather.

The full analysis of factors that contributed to the fatal crashes, shows that 42 percent of deaths were caused by the driver losing control, 31 percent were going too fast for the conditions, 30 percent were impaired with alcohol or drugs, 15 percent failed to keep left, 15 percent were inattentive, 13 percent were tired or fell asleep, 13 percent involved road ‘factors’, 12 percent did not see the other party, 12 percent failed to stop or give way, 11 percent involved pedestrians, 9 percent were inexperienced, 9 percent were driving too far to the left, 5 percent were due to weather conditions, 4 percent were due to illness or disability, 3 percent to overtaking, 2 percent to misjudging the other vehicle, 2 percent to suddenly braking or turning, and 0.8 percent involved a ‘load’ that was being carried or towed.

Drivers categorised as high risk are responsible for 34 percent of all fatal crashes where the driver was at fault – and 63 percent of all such late night fatal crashes. 56 percent of high risk drivers have alcohol issues, 39 percent are unlicensed or disqualified, 19 percent have speed offences, and at the time of the crash, 7 percent are racing or showing off, and 5 percent are evading enforcement. Most are male and young, about half are European and around 41 percent are Maori. The majority of people killed in high-risk driver crashes are the high-risk drivers themselves – 59 percent of deaths – or their passengers. But on average another 15 other road users are also killed.

The 2013 crash statistics show clearly that in around a third of all fatal crashes the driver was impaired through alcohol and/or drugs, and that in a third of cases, excessive speed was a factor. The high incidence of drink driving and speed in fatal road crashes is, of course, the reason why these two issues feature so prominently in Police road safety campaigns.

As we know, speed was a key focus in the Police’s road safety campaign over the Christmas holiday period. The problem was that in their exuberance to keep the road toll down, many New Zealanders thought they overdid it. In particular, their announcement that they were going to drop the 4km/hr ‘tolerance’ to strictly enforce legal speed limits led to speculation that their hidden agenda was revenue gathering. It took the subsequent revelation that only 14 tickets, each for $30, had been issued over the holiday period for motorists who had exceeded the speed limit by up to 4 km/hr, along with the disclosure that the 4 km/hr tolerance levels on stationary speed cameras had not been changed, for these assertions to be dropped.

The official 2014/15 holiday period resulted in 15 fatal crashes and 17 deaths – 7 drivers, 7 passengers, and 3 motorcycle riders. Twelve of the fatal crashes occurred on the open road. Provisional reports indicate that alcohol and/or speed contributed to 11 of them, with driver fatigue suspected in 2.

With New Zealand’s road death rate around 8 fatalities for every billion kilometres driven, the fact that this year’s Christmas break was two days longer than last year’s and that the falling price of petrol meant more motorists were on the roads, would have contributed significantly to the road toll being higher than expected.

Unfortunately, in spite of all the campaigns there are still reckless drivers on the road – like the motorist who was clocked at 240km/hr on the Waikato Expressway just after Christmas. If he had encountered something untoward, at the speed he was going it would have taken the car 12 seconds to stop and it would have travelled a further 450m. At 150km/hr it would take 8 seconds and 200m for a car to stop, and at 100km/hr, 5.8 seconds and 100m.

To be successful, the Police’s road safety campaigns depend on public support. As this week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator Karl du Fresne, a former editor of The Dominion, explains:

“Sir Robert Peel, the 19th century British politician who established the police force on which ours is modelled, established the principle that police must operate with the consent of the people they serve. Put another way, they can’t risk burning off public goodwill.

“Judging by public reaction to the zero tolerance campaign, as expressed in forums such as letters to the editor, talkback shows and online news sites, that’s exactly what is now happening.

“This is the consequence some police officers feared when the old enforcement branch of the Ministry of Transport merged with the police in 1992. They realised the negative public sentiment attached to traffic cops was likely to rub off on police. And so it has turned out.”

The merger of traffic and Police was one of a number of legislative changes undertaken by successive governments over the years to make driving safer.  These included the introduction of seat belts in 1965, making ‘unreasonably slow’ driving a traffic offence in 1967, alcohol testing in 1969, compulsory motor cycle helmets in 1971, lowering the open road speed limit to 80km/hr (to conserve fuel during the oil crisis) in 1973, increasing it to 100km/hr in 1985, speed cameras and compulsory breath testing in 1993, compulsory cycle helmets in 1994, and child car restraints in 1995. 1996 saw the beginning of a raft of measures to improve vehicle safety. In 2009 hand-held mobile phones were banned, and in 2011 the driving age was increased from 15 to 16 years.

Traffic enforcement is a major priority for the Police. According to newspaper reports lower speeds and fewer drink-driving offences have resulted in a drop in traffic-fine revenue to $71 million, from a high of $105 million in 2004. Meanwhile the number of speeding fines continues to increase from 56,000 a month five years ago to 82,000 a month last year. Speed camera fines, which now account for 70 percent of all speeding tickets, are also on the increase, up from 330,000 five years ago to 615,000 last year.

According to the Ministry of Transport, speed cameras are a highly cost-effective speed management tool.  They say the Police consult with local councils, the NZ Transport Agency and the Automobile Association (AA) about where to place speed cameras and that they are mainly sited on stretches of road that have a high incidence of speed-related crashes. But anecdotal evidence points to many speed cameras being located in areas where vehicle flows are likely to be slightly faster than the speed limit – again raising the suspicion that they are simply being used for revenue gathering purposes. The AA is now calling on the Police to ease up on low-level speedsters in favour of targeting higher risk roads around the country.

So what conclusions can be reached from the analysis of all of this data?

New Zealand’s relatively small population means that most families have to rely on a car for transportation. Since our 94,000 km roading network contains many dangerous roads, in the short term, good enforcement, safer cars, better medical services, and more investment in improving blackspot areas – in the way that Wellington has done – will save lives. But in the longer term, it may be technology that provides the breakthrough, by eliminating driver error through self-driving cars.

THIS WEEK’S POLL ASKS:

Do you believe the Police’s Christmas holiday road safety campaign was too heavy handed, about right, or not heavy handed enough?

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