A tragic crash in Picton claimed seven lives. Photo / George Heard
New Zealand’s annual road toll has only dipped below 300 deaths on three occasions over the past 60 years.
Last year, 318 people died on the roads – and the tragic Picton accident that claimed seven lives provided another sobering reminder of how dangerous it is to drive in this country.
Road safety expert Dr Fergus Tate, currently a technical director at engineering firm WSP, has decades of experience researching causes of road deaths and spent seven years with the NZ Transport Agency where he was the lead safety advisor for roads and roadsides.
Tate recently sat down with the Herald’s Front Page podcast to break down some of the key myths circulating about the road toll – as well as providing insight on international strategies that have made a difference.
The road toll is getting worse and worse
Tate: “Over the last 30 to 40 years, since the ’70s and ’80s, we’ve actually been making reasonable progress in reducing the road toll against an increasing number of vehicles and an increasing amount of travel. But that progress has plateaued over the last decade. There are a number of potential reasons for that, including economic factors, lack of enforcement, and a lack of real progress on infrastructure improvements except on a very small number of roads.”
Tourists are to blame
Tate: “The last two or three years have shown it’s not tourist drivers at all, and we need to be accountable for our own behaviours. But even before the border closed, tourists made up a very small proportion of our fatal and serious injuries – less than 5 per cent. They were higher on certain roads, like the Milford Road, but they were still a small proportion. Blaming tourists is a cheap cop-out.”
Drivers need more training
Tate: “It’s important to understand that when it comes to road user behaviour, the critical issue isn’t skills or knowledge but motivation. The primary behaviours that contribute to serious crashes are speeding, not wearing seatbelts, not wearing helmets and impaired driving. None of these are skills issues. None of them would be addressed by more driver training. They’re motivational issues such as wearing seat belts and helmets or choosing not to drive after drinking or consuming drugs…
“The evidence on advanced driver training schemes is also mixed. Advanced driver training sessions lead to higher levels of confidence and actually lead to higher crash rates for those that have been trained. So we have to be very, very careful about how we interpret this.”
Harsher penalties will reduce the road toll
Tate: “You need to separate this into two parts: the people who have motivational issues and are possibly pushing their risk envelopes; and secondly those that make mistakes. Higher penalties probably don’t address the mistakes that people make, but they do work on the motivational side. But it’s not just the penalties. It’s also the likelihood of being caught. It’s the combination of catch and penalty that actually motivates people. You can have as high penalties as you like, but if people don’t feel like they’re going to be apprehended, they don’t care. Similarly, if you have high enforcement but low penalties, then it’s effectively a tax. We need a balance between these things.”
Norway and Ireland have better per capita road deaths
Tate: “While per capita road deaths is a simple measure and universally used, it’s not a particularly good one. We should really be measuring in terms of the deaths and serious injuries per hundred million vehicle kilometres of travel. That said, countries like Norway, Sweden and Ireland have been implementing safe system philosophies for a number of years – and this is clearly paying off. The safe system recognises that drivers will make mistakes. And while it’s important to reduce the likelihood of those mistakes, it’s important that they don’t result in death or serious injury. As a general rule, the better European countries typically have lower speed limits on undivided rural roads and in urban areas. They have more safety cameras, lower breath alcohol limits and higher infringement.”
NZ’s drinking culture is to blame
Tate: “Alcohol, prescription drugs, non-prescription drugs – all of those things increase the chances of people making poor decisions and responding badly to a situation. So yes, they are all adding to the crash risk. And if we look at the statistics, the proportion of people drink-driving in New Zealand is very low in terms of the overall population, but they make up 25 to 30 per cent of those involved in crashes – so it’s huge. It has a major impact.”
The Front Page is a daily news podcast from the New Zealand Herald, available to listen to every weekday from 5am.