Trust 2014 is treating everyone well thus far. For my part I‘ve spent the last month or so travelling through the Netherlands, Germany, Norway, Sweden, France, and now Austria. Tomorrow I begin the long (28 hour) journey back to Auckland, where I hope the best part of summer will be ready to greet me. 

While I’m looking forward to getting home (as always), travelling through northern and western Europe has helped to highlight some unfortunate aspects of road safety in NZ. And the difference is not only associated with infrastructure. On my travels I’ve cycled in several countries and been impressed by the empathy demonstrated by drivers towards other road users in general, and pedestrians and cyclists in particular.

In the recent debates in NZ over cycle safety I’ve noticed many people looking to “blame” cyclists for the injuries they sustain. In the following post I will outline why I think this “blame game” is disingenuous and unhelpful. 

Two common arguments are advanced to heap blame on cyclists and in the process make people who identify as drivers feel better about themselves.

The first argument attempts to depict cyclists as reckless “law-breakers” whose carelessness is the primary cause of their injuries. In this recent post, however, Matt analysed traffic infringements and found that cyclists receive fewer infringement notices per kilometre than drivers. Meanwhile, the MoT has found that in the vast majority (64%) of accidents involving cyclists, the latter are not at fault. From these two statistics alone it seems clear that cyclists are not an especially reckless bunch of people.

The second argument portrays cyclists as dependent “bludgers” who do not contribute to the upkeep of the transport facilities they use and/or demand, because they do not pay registration and/or fuel excise duties. As Matt notes in his post, however, approximately 50% of transport funding is sourced from local property rates, some of which will – of course – be collected from cyclists. The latter will also tend to be fitter and healthier, and thereby impose a smaller fiscal burden on the health system (which is by far the largest area of government expenditure). For these two reasons the net contribution of cyclists to government coffers is unclear – it may well be that cyclists kick in more than is spent on them.

The absence of supporting evidence belies this for the psychological trick that it really is: People are trying to shift the blame for road safety outcomes from themselves (as a group) and onto another. The (usually unstated) thought-pattern seems to go something like this: “If only cyclists would 1) follow the road rules and 2) contribute to transport funding, then they would deserve to be safe from injury. But until they do, I’m not going to consider how changes to the way I drive could contribute to improved road safety outcomes.”

Not only are the above two arguments unsupported by evidence, but they are also not particularly helpful – the following personal experience may help illustrate why blame itself is a largely unhelpful emotion in discussions of road safety.

In 1990 my dad was involved in a serious road accident caused by intoxicated driver who came around a corner on the wrong side of the road. My father was not to blame at all. Dad was helicoptered to hospital with a punctured lung, a ruptured aorta, and a leg that was broken in three places. While his heart stopped briefly in hospital, the staff at Middlemore Hospital worked some medical magic and managed to bring him back.

While my father managed to survive his accident, he would never recover fully from the injuries he sustained.

He could work no more than 20 hours per week, which in turn required that my mother returned to work – rather than stay home with her four children as she had planned. As for us, we were too young to really understand what had happened. All we knew was that 1) Dad could no longer play cricket with us so much; 2) Mum was more tired and stressed; and 3) our new house took 20 years to finish rather than 2.

Here’s the key point: The fact my father was not to blame for his car accident was of absolutely no comfort my family. We did not sit there happy and self-righteous because he was not to blame. No, we sat there and mulled how we could get on with our lives as best we could.

A culture of blame does not help those affected by road accidents one jot. And it has the very undesirable effect of dulling our collective responsibility for improving road safety, because it makes easier for people to persist with their current driving habits. 

When it comes to road accidents, our first emotional response should be one of empathy for all those affected, regardless of who is at fault. Incidentally, that is why I like this road safety advertisement so much: Both drivers have clearly erred, with tragic consequences. Indeed, the magnitude of the consequences seem disproportionate to the errors involved. Small, all-too-human errors can have major consequences.

The primary point of this advertisement is worth keeping in mind: We all make mistakes and these mistakes have repercussions that extend well beyond the drivers involved. In this video, for example, the boy sitting in the back of the car is the innocent bystander who bears no blame for the accident – yet will obviously experience the physical and emotional trauma that flows from the accident, if he survives.

To sum up: I’d like to see us abandon the “culture of blame” that characterises road safety discussions in NZ. Statistically and anecdotally, it seems fairly clear to me that NZ has a widespread road safety problem, i.e. we are dying and being hurt on our roads in numbers that are high compared to many other countries.

The Netherlands, for example, has a road death rate that is approximately half that of NZ’s. Think of it this way: Families in the Netherlands are half as likely to experience the life-long trauma and suffering that comes from losing a loved one suddenly and unexpectedly. Even Norway – which has roads that are steep and often icy and treacherous – has a per capita road death rate that is one-third lower than that found in NZ.

Sometimes I wish that improved road safety could become a “national sport” of sorts, whereby each and every year NZers strive to reduce the death/injury toll compared to the previous year. And when we do, we pat ourselves on the back and resolve to doing even better next year.

Even so-called “perfect drivers” still have a social role to play in improving road safety outcomes. Whether by preventing friends and family from driving when tired, or encouraging others to slow down and drive safely around cyclists – we can all make a positive contribution to roads safety in NZ.

While there’s much to be positive about insofar as NZ’s recent road safety trends are concerned, some aspects of the underlying discourse concerns me. Rather than investing all our energy into debating out exactly who is to blame in every individual accident, let’s instead take some time to step back and reflect on our collective responsibility for keeping each other safe.

*** This post is dedicated to all those whose loved ones have been killed or injured on NZ’s roads ***

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  1. Excellent, poignant post. As I wasn’t born in NZ, I must say I have always felt more unsafe on the roads here (no matter what form of transport I’m using), and I hope that changes.

  2. Yeah – we are all collectively responsible for everyone’s safety. I think there were quite a few people that had their emotions triggered last week, from the pro car lobby, the pro cyclists, and the media. It’s important the public looks beyond those with agendas and acknowledges the tragedy to those personally involved. Post of the year Mr Donovan.

  3. I would love to see a stop to the blame game but that is never going to happen when, after every accident, the police come out swinging with a statement saying “speed and alcohol are likely to be a factor”.

    1. “after every accident, the police come out swinging with a statement saying “speed and alcohol are likely to be a factor”.”

      Is that a true statement?

      1. It is what the police say after every accident. I don’t know if it is true or not, and probably neither to the police at the time they say it.

      2. Chris Randal’s statement is false. Those wishing to read police statements after crashes (and other incidents) can do so here. They make for grim reading.

        The NZ Police Serious Crash Unit are a highly professional body, and I admire their tenacity and desire to get to the ultimate cause of every serious incident. If they declare that speed is a factor in a crash, it is because it is still the leading cause, with 83 deaths resulting. Similarly, alcohol is the cause of 73 deaths (many crashes being multifactorial).

        1. I’m talking about the statements made within the first 30 minutes after the accident – and I am not questioning the work of the SCU.

  4. Apologies if the post is not clear on this point: I fully support analysis, research, and detailed discussion of the explanatory factors for road accidents.

    But I’d very much prefer if the focus was on aggregate statistics, rather than the factors applying to individual accidents. It’s all too easy for us to use the explanatory factors for individual accidents – be they alcohol, speed, or even cyclists behaving irresponsibly – as a form of “psychological cocaine” that makes us feel better about how we drive.

    This applies to the Police as well, although they naturally have a responsibility to report the “facts” that apply to individual accidents, where required.

    1. I think that we should focus on the factors applying to individual accidents in a non-blaming way, and then do something about them. That’s the approach that TAIC/CAA/MNZ follow for their incident investigations, and it seems to work.

      It strikes me as bizarre that our most dangerous mode of transport (by far) has the least effort put into preventive investigation (also by far).

  5. NZ has not only a BLAME culture but a BULLY culture too.
    You can tell what Kiwis are really like 1) at work and 2) once they crawl into their car.

  6. Hi Stu. I really appreciated your post at the time and I’ve come back to it as I remember my dad (Malcolm “Mel” Coom) who was killed in a car crash 20 years ago today when he was 49 (killed instantly in a completely preventable head on collision on SH3 near Fielding)

    As well as abandoning the culture of blame (particularly nasty when cyclists are blamed for fatal crashes) we need to demand the “safe systems” approach to road safety and not accept that fatalities and injuries on our roads are inevitable (I am sure the safe systems principles are very familiar to the experts but I didn’t learn about this approach until I went to the Trafinz conference in 2012 (My report on what I took away from the conference

    Thank you for dedicating your post to all those whose loved ones have been killed or injured on NZ’s roads

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