This is a guest post from Bevan Woodward, a Transport Planner and Project Director for SkyPath Trust.
It seems that almost every day I read in the media of deaths or serious injuries on our roads. I’ve lost family members in three fatal motor vehicle crashes. I no longer cycle to work because I’ve had too many near misses with vehicles whizzing past.
But it’s not just me who’s feeling it, our national statistics make for grim reading. New Zealand’s road toll is double that of the UK on a per capita basis and four times the Netherlands (and they’re all riding funny bikes with no helmets)!
So what’s the difference between our countries; why does New Zealand have such a terrifyingly high death toll on our roads and most importantly, what are we doing about it?
Having considered and studied this matter for some time now, I believe the essence of the problem is quite simple: traffic speeds on our roads are often dangerously high and unfortunately no one’s doing anything much about it.
The countries that have world’s lowest road tolls (mostly the northern European nations), have traffic speeds much lower than ours, their urban streets are generally 30 km/h and their rural roads are 60 to 80 km/h. Only their motorways have 100 km/h or higher speed limits.
The experts tell us that speed is a key factor in road safety because speed not only increases the likelihood of crashing, but it determines the severity of every crash. Auckland Transport’s website states “Speed is the single biggest road safety issue in NZ today.“
So why aren’t we looking to make our traffic speeds comparable to the Northern European countries to reduce our dreadful road toll? I think there are two key reasons.
Firstly engineers and economists dominate transport planning in NZ and they are naturally inclined to think that speed is good. ‘Speed delivers efficiency’ is the mantra I hear so often. However this thinking doesn’t consider the unintended consequences of fast traffic: we have more crashes and deaths, intersections and bottlenecks are more prone to congestion, it’s unpleasant and unsafe for commuters and school children to walk or cycle, transport emissions increase, residential property values are reduced on busy roads, communities are severed, people feel more isolated, and on it goes until you find you’re living in a highly car dependant society with high rates of obesity, car ownership, traffic congestion and unreliable journey times – welcome to New Zealand!
The second, and probably even more significant reason, is that our politicians see safer traffic speeds as a potentially very unattractive proposition for voters. I can hear the talkback radio show hosts having a field day: “Kiwis are better than the average driver and we know how to handle speed. Who wants a nanny Government saying we have to slow down!”
Some people really like to drive at speed and can’t get their heads around the fact that it contributes to our dreadful death toll and all the other nasty outcomes I’ve listed above.
In short it’s a political hot potato, but that doesn’t mean we can’t handle it. We simply have to focus on the wide range of significant benefits of reduced traffic speeds, and not let the rhetoric get in the way of the facts.
It may not be an easy transition but the current approach is failing us. It’s time to make changes. If we have to, let’s send the road engineers and transport economists for a 10 day study tour of Sweden and the Netherlands so they can see how “safety first” traffic speeds can be both more efficient and ensure safer roads for all users – something I believe we all desperately need and want for New Zealand.