Road safety solutions need wider focus

There has been much debate this week about lowering speed limits on roads throughout New Zealand. In talking about the economic impact of such a move, there seems to be some belief that this means not caring about the deaths and injuries on New Zealand roads. Quite the opposite is true – at the Road Transport Forum we want to ensure a safe workplace for truck drivers, a workplace that has a positive impact on their well being, and a workplace that allows them to go home to their families at the end of their work shift. For much of that shift, their workplace is the road.

In New Zealand, debate on significant issues has taken an ugly turn. If you don’t agree chapter and verse with the Green anti-road/anti-motor vehicle movement, all manner of insults come your way, often in shouting capital letters. You are a “car fascist” or part of a “pro-death lobby”, to name just the tip of the iceberg of insults, many personal. This is frankly, ridiculous, and not healthy. It does not allow for progress, or good policy making. And if these people looked up, they would see that much of what they rely on to go about their everyday life travels to them by trucks.

Good policy and law making requires thorough and robust research relevant to the New Zealand context; a look at all contributing factors to a problem and matching the best options to those; stakeholder and public engagement; listening; and accepting opinions and advice that might be contrary to your own. Unfortunately, we are seeing less of this and more reactionary moves with unintended consequences.

To wake up on Wednesday morning and read that the Government wants to crack down on the road toll by dropping speed limits across the country is concerning. The statistics presented don’t give the full picture of what’s happening on New Zealand roads. A desktop mapping tool has been used to determine “safety” of roads. This data needs checking in the real world to make sure that what it is proposing makes sense. If decision-making rests on these maps, we are in trouble.

Of course, safety has to be the number one priority on our roads. But speed isn’t the cause of 75 percent of accidents, according to Government statistics. Let’s focus on the most dangerous 10 percent of roads, as well as all the other causes of accidents, to find the best ways to improve road safety.

To be very clear, the contributing factors to our road toll that need to be considered before hasty decisions are made include:

  • Speed
  • Road conditions and infrastructure
  • Vehicles – age and condition
  • Driver behaviour – including breaking the law by not wearing seat belts, using mobile phones, using drugs and alcohol with resulting impairment, driving without a licence, etc
  • Technology – improvements in vehicle safety; better road surfacing and infrastructure
  • Education, training and licensing
  • Enforcement – more laws and rules require more enforcement

It is concerning to see speed being the sole focus at the expense of what we believe is another critical factor in ensuring road safety – road conditions and infrastructure. This does not mean driving to the conditions. This means the conditions of the road are so poor, the road becomes dangerous even for the most sensible and unimpaired drivers. It means that no matter how well engineered a vehicle is, it hasn’t been engineered for the conditions on some New Zealand roads. It means those roads need to be brought up to a safe standard.

This does not mean the trimmings of median and side barriers, rumble strips and shoulder widening – which the Government is spending $1.4 billion on over three years – will magically make these roads safe. To quote truck driver Antony Alexander in the June issue of New Zealand Trucking magazine: “No driver ever said: ‘A rumble strip and bright white line makes me feel so much safer’.”

The New Zealand Transport Agency’s (NZTA) Speed Management Guide, was a 10-year plan to target five percent of the highest risk roads, now all of a sudden that scope has been increased to 10 percent of roads over three years. The focus was not supposed to be on speed alone, major roads were to be upgraded to make them safe at higher speeds, but we have seen very little of that happening. In fact, in the past couple of years we have seen a de-funding of the roading budget.

In a press release yesterday the Selwyn District Council signalled NZTA funding cuts on local roading improvements could put motorists at risk.

“Vital projects which we were planning to improve the safety and efficiency of roading network, particularly our roads feeding into the Christchurch Southern Motorway, have been halted unexpectedly due to a shortfall in national transport funding. This puts our residents and other motorists at risk on main roads that are in desperate need of safety upgrades,” the Council said.

This is the big picture we should be discussing. New Zealand has 53,425km of sealed roads that are essential to our way of life and that we all share, not matter what mode of transport we choose. Can we grow up New Zealand and have a fruitful discussion about how we use these roads safely, an issue which is clearly on many people’s minds?

  • Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

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