Lack of investment in roads will cost us all

We continue to see evidence of the importance of roads in New Zealand. We have a geographically challenging country and the way we all connect to one another is via roads – 93,000 kilometres of them.

Last week, the 2017-18 National Freight Demand Study was released, showing road transport is the major mode of travel for all our domestic and export food and goods, carrying about 93 percent of the total of 280 million tonnes moved during that period.

On a tonnes per kilometre basis, road transport has grown 16 percent between the 2014 and 2019 reports, while rail has dropped 17 percent. The official word in the report is that the drop in rail freight reflects the impact of the Kaikoura earthquake, and the reduction in coal traffic in 2017-18. I guess you have to grasp at excuses when the evidence doesn’t support the ideological direction of the Government. The contention of the RTF is that the improvement of truck payload efficiency is the real reason for the shift between rail and road. Over the past six years, HPMV and 50Max gains have been realised in dairy, logs, livestock, aggregates, and petroleum distribution, as new vehicles have replaced older, less efficient ones.

This picture, with the backdrop of a tightening economy, suggests the Government should be recognising the correlation between our roads and our way of life.

Sadly, this is not the case. While the Government has quite rightly focused on some aspects of road safety, they don’t seem to connect the importance of the roads themselves, to the safety of the people using them.

We are seeing this in the lowering of speed limits on main highways all around the country. In the South Island, residents are petitioning the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) to scrap proposed lower speed limits on State Highway 6, from Nelson to Blenheim. NZTA cites accident numbers to say the road is unsafe and is proposing reducing the speed from 100 km/h to 80 km/h. If approved, the entire length of SH6 between the two towns, about 110 kilometres, would be not more than 80km/h at any point. NZTA says the “technical assessment of the state of the road” was the reason behind the proposed reduced speed limit.

This is also happening on State Highway 1, around Warkworth and Puhoi north of Auckland, where there is a proposal to reduce the speed limit from 100 km/h to 80 km/h, for 15 kilometres. This is our main state highway north out of our major city, Auckland.

And we are seeing road closures because of a lack of investment. The Manawatu-Taranaki-King Country regions are being significantly impacted by two state highways closed by slips – SH4 between Whanganui and Raetihi and SH43 between Mangaparo and Kururau Road, part of the Forgotten Highway. These road closures are of considerable concern to businesses and residents in these regions, who are facing long and expensive detours. People are losing money, daily. This is busy dairy and logging country and it’s a busy time of year. For years, locals on SH4 have been warning the road needed attention. Now, they are looking at a year, if not years of it being closed. There are school children on one side who cannot get to school on the other side of the slip. This doesn’t just affect this region. It has an impact on all of us when goods we rely on have to travel further to get to us. That means they cost more, at a time when household budgets have very little slack.

What we are seeing is death by a thousand cuts – of our roads and subsequently, of our back pockets. Not fixing roads and lowering speed limits to accommodate not fixing roads will slow us down and cost us more. The Government says it’s nine minutes here, or seven minutes there, but it all adds up to a total journey. As the Nelson locals say, it also causes perverse behaviour. When people are slowed down, they do stupid things.

There’s ideology, not strategy at play. There is no big picture thinking – what is the total impact of dropping the speed limit to 80 km/h on 110 kilometres of road that is used to transport for example, valuable horticulture products to export markets? If two main roads are closed for a long period of time, what is the total impact to all New Zealanders of the additional business costs that generates?

While the Government would have people believe less trucks on the road is a good thing, it’s not. It’s less jobs. It’s less money in rural and provincial New Zealand. It’s decline not growth. It’s the inconvenience of not having what you want when you want it. It’s higher prices for essentials like food. And at the end of the day, it finally impacts those in the cities as well.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Let’s tailor road safety solutions to our unique environment

Be like Sweden they say. The Government is looking at adding hundreds of speed cameras, attracting much larger fines, as part of a road safety strategy borrowed from Sweden.

For left-wing governments, the Scandinavian countries are the holy grail. With tax rates that are double ours, Sweden has plenty of cash to create wellbeing.

They are of course, selective with the Scandinavian comparisons they hold up as ideal – Sweden is the ninth largest arms exporter in the world, for example. That’s probably not something this Government plans to replicate (though they are about to have a load of guns on their hands). In fact, it is a bit like comparing apples to oranges to compare New Zealand and Sweden.

In the next few years, Sweden will have more than 3000 speed cameras, scattered across about 9000km of road.

By comparison, New Zealand Police operate 56 speed cameras throughout the country.

Sweden has more than 2000km of motorway and a further 6000km of expressway. The speed limits on its motorway network are up to 120km/h. New Zealand has 360km of motorway, with a further 124km under construction. Our poor quality roads are no comparison with Sweden’s sophisticated roading network. Sweden has a lower road toll that us, but it did go up in 2018 and there are many factors leading to death and injury on the roads other than speed.

The aim of replicating Sweden’s speed camera approach is to reduce death and injury on New Zealand roads. The Government has decided to focus on speed as the main driver for our high road toll. There seems to be a blind spot when it comes to the dire condition of some roads and other factors that contribute to our poor safety record.

Because the Swedish cameras are heavily signposted, fines are up to four times higher than they are in New Zealand.

If someone is caught driving at 11-15km/h over the speed limit in Sweden, they are fined NZ$320, compared to just $80 here. The New Zealand plan includes replicating the high fines to encourage changes in behaviour.

The theory is, if people know there are so many speed cameras and they are given so much warning of the location of those speed cameras, they stick to the speed limit and therefore, don’t need to worry about those high fines.

While the Police currently administer speed cameras in New Zealand, the plan would be to transfer this admin to the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) to allow a greater alignment between road planning and improvements and the placement of speed cameras. This might be a big ask given the volume of fines already generated by the speed cameras we have – more than $80 million in mobile and static speed camera fines in 2018.

The Government’s argument that more damage happens in a crash because of the speed the vehicles are going at the time, is not incorrect. However, that does not mean speeding was the cause of the accident, that the speed limit was being breached, or that the speed limits on our roads are unsafe. This view ignores the safety engineering in modern vehicles, as well as all the other factors that cause road accidents including drug and alcohol use, fatigue, distractions like using mobile phones, and poor road conditions.

The road transport industry is certainly open to an approach that changes behaviour, reduces people’s dangerous driving and improves safety. But we believe the answer to our road safety issues lies in more than this tunnel vision on speed. There needs to be a big picture view and due consideration of all road safety factors.

Kiwis love their cars; their car means freedom. So let’s see if the Swedish approach can be a fit for New Zealand, and that there is enough money for appropriate education before thousands of speed cameras are put up around the country and Kiwis end up out of pocket. Let’s also be open minded about other solutions and accept that maybe we should tailor solutions specific to our environment. We are very different to Sweden.

  • Nick Leggett, CEO Road Transport Forum

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

Slow road speeds, slow economy

As a country reliant on export dollars to maintain our great way of life, transporting goods on trucks, via roads, is the lifeblood that keeps the New Zealand economy moving.

Our roads are like the arteries in a human body. Arteries pump blood around your body to keep you alive, and most people are conscious of keeping those vital arteries healthy. If we want to keep our economy healthy and alive, roads must be treated as essential to that.

Road quality must be improved and maintained to a level that ensures goods can be moved in the most cost-effective way. That means, safely and without delay. This is getting increasingly important as the world wants more of our primary products, and the Government pushes for a much higher investment in forestry.

Regional roading infrastructure is critical to transporting our primary products from the farm or orchard gate to processing and markets, and the logs out of the forest to the port. While these movements can be a combination of road and rail, road will always be integral and its investment dollars should not be moved wholesale to rail.

Yet the Government is deferring significant road building and improvement and focusing on things like slowing speeds to allegedly make roads safer. Earlier this month Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter said speed limits on “the most dangerous roads” could drop to 80km per hour, as part of its road safety plans. This has some worrying implications for productivity and meeting market demands for goods.

Setting speed limits needs to be about more than safety. Mobility and the environment need to be balancing priorities in any decision making. And the environment is something we would expect this Government to focus on.

Slowing down heavy vehicles may in fact, increase their impact on the environment, with a rise in emissions at decreasing speeds. Without getting technical, this is to do with fuel and engine performance at various speeds, with that being different for trucks than for cars.

We want policy that solves problems. To do that, all factors need to be considered. At the moment it feels like the road safety focus is on the trimmings of median and side barriers, rumble strips and shoulder widening. A $1.4 billion spend over three years sounds like a lot for that. This policy was announced six months ago and despite the fact we are almost 20 percent through the period, we know precious little about the critical roads where it is to be spent. It sounds like another announcement without any detail or policy behind it.

If it is at the expense of quality road surfaces, and road building projects that could reduce travel times and congestion, as well as making roads safe, then we question that.

And if slowing down the traffic is because there isn’t money to spend on making the road surface safe and to avoid road building projects that could reduce travel times and congestion, then we question that as well. Under the Land Transport Rule: Setting of Speed Limits 2017, the Road Transport Forum, among others, is to be consulted on proposed speed limits and I look forward to that consultation.

Ms Genter refers to the “most dangerous roads” being the target for speed reductions. We need to know what determines “most dangerous”. If it is roads without median barriers, then that’s most of the South Island. If it’s hundreds or thousands of kilometres, then that will severely impact the productivity of New Zealand and our ability to export goods at prices markets will pay.

Each additional cost to transporting goods costs every New Zealander.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum