Sadly there has been increasing carnage on our roads in recent times which has kept the road toll steadily rising. As of yesterday morning, for the year to date we’ve had 35 more deaths compared to the same time last year. With the road toll up currently by over 16% then if the current trend continues then 2015 will be the worst year for 5 years.
The carnage continued yesterday with two serious incidents, one in which a schoolboy was killed after his motorcycle collided with a car and in the second a 14 year old girl was hit and is in a serious condition after a “distracted driver” appears to have mounted a kerb while she was waiting to cross the road.
The increasing road toll and events particularly like the second one raise the question of whether we’re doing enough to keep people safe. There is no other area in society where we would consistently allow for so many people to be killed or injured and then do so little about it. Perhaps we need to implement Vision Zero.
So what is Vision Zero, Wikipedia gives a good succinct definition.
Vision Zero is a multi-national road traffic safety project which aims to achieve a highway system with no fatalities or serious injuries in road traffic. It started in Sweden and was approved by their parliament in October 1997. A core principle of the vision is that ‘Life and health can never be exchanged for other benefits within the society’ rather than the more conventional comparison between costs and benefits, where a monetary value is placed on life and health, and then that value is used to decide how much money to spend on a road network towards the benefit of decreasing how much risk
Vision Zero is based on four principles:
- Ethics: Human life and health are paramount and take priority over mobility and other objectives of the road traffic system
- Responsibility: providers and regulators of the road traffic system share responsibility with users;
- Safety: road traffic systems should take account of human fallibility and minimize both the opportunities for errors and the harm done when they occur; and
- Mechanisms for change: providers and regulators must do their utmost to guarantee the safety of all citizens; they must cooperate with road users; and all three must be ready to change to achieve safety.
We are very much still in the more conventional mode of assessing safety based on costs and benefits rather than doing everything it takes to get deaths and injuries down while spending the vast majority of road our money on mega motorway projects – although yes they can be safer than the roads they replace.
In response to these incidents the NZTA’s Road Safety Director Ernst Zollner says
“One of the most tragic aspects of serious road crashes is that nearly all of them are preventable.
“The Transport Agency will continue working with police, the Automobile Association and many others to create a safe system for all New Zealanders. That means making our roads and roadsides safer by removing trees and power poles, encouraging people to buy the safest car they can afford, encouraging safer speeds and it means stamping out dangerous behaviour like drink-driving,” Mr Zollner said.
There are of course different solutions needed for different environments. On rural roads widening shoulders, improving curves and sightlines as well as removing objects from the roadsides are often key however in an urban environment those measures would make the issue worse as it would encourage drivers to travel at faster speeds.
In urban areas we often need to slow traffic down and make it easier for pedestrians and cyclists to use the roads. Yesterday’s incident with the schoolgirl highlights a great example of the types of things we should be aiming to improve. St Lukes Rd is a busy four lane road and for people wanting to cross the road the only option is to wait for a gap in traffic then dash to the narrow median – what is often called a “pedestrian refuge” – where you then have to wait while cars and trucks wizz by in close proximity and at speed while you wait for another gap in traffic to rush to the other side. This makes it difficult to cross especially for anyone not able bodied. Of course as mentioned a refuge isn’t much good if a driver mounts it which raises other questions such as why the refuge has such easily mountable kerbs.
Of course another issue is that if you complained to AT/Local Board for long enough and managed to get an engineer our to assess the site they’d probably come back and say that because not many people use a crossing that there’s no value in upgrading it – ignoring the fact that people don’t use something because they don’t find it safe.
One thing that constantly frustrates me is that despite the solutions being known for some time, that we still seem to design roads with the same flaws. Some planners and engineers seem to be locked in a time warp and seem to wilfully ignore that best practice has changed. I almost wonder if transport professionals need an equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath to make roads safe for all users.
Ultimately though any improvement needs to be driven by politicians (with the support of the people of course). They are the ones who need to push aspirational goals like Vision Zero. For local politicians they’re the ones who need to be asking at every opportunity about how projects will make roads safer and whether what’s proposed is safe enough for an 8 year old or an 80 year old to be and feel safe.
So time for Vision Zero?