Matt’s post the other week about New Zealand’s worsening road safety record was troubling. After years in which the number of people dying in road crashes has fallen, the number’s been rising steadily since 2014 and it’s recently spiked upwards.

As Matt wrote:

That our road toll is increasing is appalling and it’s even more disappointing to see that pedestrians are bearing some of the brunt of it. That increasing toll has seen in the 12 months to the end of July, 365 people die on our roads, an average of one person every single day. At its lowest in February 2014, the toll was sitting at just 249. Even comparing the outcome to other metrics, such as comparing to the population or vehicle kilometres travelled shows the same basic trend.

But it’s not just road deaths.

The week the rising road death numbers were released, the NZ Herald also published a disturbing article on New Zealand’s rising suicide deaths.

Almost 10 years after he committed suicide, his widow still wakes screaming in the middle of the night.

Her sister Julz Lee says he was “the very, very last person you would have thought to have done it”.

He had a steady job, a good marriage and two daughters aged 12 and 13.

“The hardest thing to come to terms with was the fact that nobody could understand it, there was no explanation as to why, even to this day,” she says.

“She [his widow] kept all of his stuff for a very long time because she simply couldn’t understand why.

“She has severe panic attacks and she has night terrors. She has remarried and her new husband is used to her screaming in the night terrors but I don’t think it will ever leave her.”

Lee, who will tell her family’s story on Thursday at a West Auckland event displaying 579 shoes to remember 579 Kiwis who died by suicide last year, spoke out as the latest statistics showed that suicides reached a new record of 606 in the year to June 30.

She wants other bereaved families to be offered help – which her sister has never received.

Like road deaths, suicides are rising to a new high:

The latest suicide figures are the highest since coroner’s records began nine years ago. The suicide rate of 12.64 for every 100,000 people is now as bad as the last peak of 12.65 six years ago.

Also the same week, the NZ Herald published a story about rising death and illness from diseases of poverty and poor housing quality. Again, it makes for distressing reading:

More New Zealand children are killed by diseases linked to cold, damp, and overcrowded housing than in car crashes or drownings.

Disease casts a shadow over Parrs Park in West Auckland. It’s there in the data: the children are getting sick. And when the women open their doors, they’ll tell you.

“My granddaughter got bronchitis,” says Talia*, on Selak Place. “She was just 5. We don’t use the heater, it’s broken. We use the oven to warm the house.”

Aroha*, who lives in a state house next door, has four children. The two boys have asthma. The baby was also hospitalised with a respiratory disease.

“The doctor said it was because the house was too cold. We were only home three days and she got sick,” Aroha says. “They gave her medicine. But there was nothing they could do about the house.”

Across the road Azaryah, 1, has pneumonia. Her family took her to the doctor three times in three days. Eventually, they went to the emergency department and her illness showed up in an x-ray.

“Since then we’ve been running a dehumidifier and a heater all day. She just hasn’t gotten any better,” her mum says. “We have a good landlord but we’re looking to move. It’s pretty cold without the heater, it’s freezing.”

Upstairs, mould grows on the windowsills. Despite being a new house, it has no ventilation system.

The statistics are shocking:

Health data shows that each year 20 children are killed by diseases linked to unhealthy housing – more than 350 since the millennium. Half of those were from pneumonia. Asthma and wheeze took 33. Bronchiolitis claimed 15.

The deaths peak in winter, hospitals flooded as soon as it gets cold. Maori and Pacific children die at twice the rate of Europeans. The very poor die at 14 times the rate of the very rich, with a recent report from the Asthma and Respiratory Foundation describing the effect of deprivation as “near exponential”.

“Across all respiratory health indicators, by far the most relentless and disturbing pattern was the high degree of inequality,” the report said.

Hospitalisations caused by poverty-related conditions have increased since 2000 – up to 43,000 last year. Respiratory diseases, in particular, are growing at much more severe rates.

We could view these stories in isolation. Rising road death are the product of increasing traffic and decades of feckless engineering. Rising suicides are the product of a culture that has always told suffering people to ‘harden up’ – and our obscene neglect of mental health services. Increasing deaths and hospitalisations from respiratory illnesses are the product of a severe housing crisis that has crowded people into unsafe housing, plus too much hardscrabble poverty for too many.

But there’s a common thread running through them, which is that we have sat by complacently while too many people die.

We lament individual deaths, especially when they touch us personally. But when it comes to looking at the systemic problems that cause too many needless deaths, we often shrug our shoulders and say: It’s too hard. It can’t be helped.

But it’s not too hard and it can be helped. New Zealand isn’t typical on these measures: We have some of the worst suicide rates in the developed world, some of the highest rates of respiratory illnesses, and significantly higher road deaths than leading northern European countries. This is clear evidence that these problems can be fixed – if we care to fix them.

We have an election on 23 September. A good question to ask, when you’re choosing how to vote, would be: Who has a plan to address New Zealand’s problem with death? And who is saying: We’d like to do more, but it’s too hard / too expensive / not a priority?

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  1. Well timed post Peter. I too think there is a connection between the death toll on the roads and from suicide. I think it is about looking at wider systemic processes and in particular about the quality of our connections in society. I recently wrote about youth suicide, which develops some of these arguments. I think NZ needs to have a conversation about these sort of issues.

    1. Yes. Great post, and some good comments below. Others just show the same problem with death that Peter’s post highlighted.

  2. Logically, reducing road speed to 0kmh would eliminate all road toll deaths

    Do we accept that a goal of zero deaths is worth the costs of eliminating all road traffic?

    What’s an acceptable calculus?

    It’s very easy to sit in an ivory tower and pontificate, but in the real world there are men just like Ike in the months before D-Day trying to work out just how many deaths were worth the gains to be achieved

    1. Please leave your pointless and heartless straw-men at the door.

      We *should* have a target of zero suicides. We *should* have a target of zero children dying from preventable respiratory illness. And we *should* have a target of zero road deaths. (New York and Sweden do!)

      We may not get all the way there, but a hard target focuses the minds of policymakers and makes it clear that we can’t keep ignoring all of these preventable deaths.

      1. I used to work for a large Oil and Gas company in the UK which had a (what was seen by many) pretty draconian safety policy, not only for those on drilling rigs but for all those in officed based work as well. I think most people accepted it for the field work, but were dismissive of it at an office level.

        During a 1-1 with my senior manager he described it this way: other companies would aim to reduce harm or reduce deaths each year – “we killed 10 people last year, lets only try and kill 5 this year”, whereas our company wanted to have 0 deaths and 0 injuries. By referencing it in those ways it made it clear what the aim was and set the culture for the company. Its a mindset basically, if you accept that you’ll have some collateral damage along the way then you’ll never work hard to stop it happening in the first place.

      2. By definition, ALL road deaths are preventable, because we don’t need to drive.

        If you do have a target of zero deaths, and you don’t ban driving, you are not engaging in what is proven to be the most effective means to that end.

        You’re an economist, you understand diminishing returns. For an expenditure of X for Y outputs you can improve an outcome (suicide, road deaths) by Z. Improving it further means 2X, 4X, 8X, 16X expenditure until you’re spending your entire GDP to prevent one further suicide.

        You also ignore psychology. As a police officer, if I have a target of zero, as soon as there is one, I have failed. If you are constantly barraging public servants with unachievable targets that they constantly fail, what do you think might happen to morale/self esteem? You might get what happened in the Soviet Union – a deep cynicism about targets.

        1. I don’t agree. Having a target of zero drives a different way of thinking. Before moving to NZ I had never heard of a “road toll”. It seems bizarre to me to herald slight drops in the toll as being a positive thing, when in reality it’s all awful. It leads to complacency, thinking a 5% reduction from last year is good.

          Contrast this with, say, the airline industry. I’ve worked for airlines, and no matter what you might think they definitely don’t have a view that there is an acceptable amount of crashes or deaths. They all have a target of zero. That drives a particular approach to safety.

          It is entirely possible to have a target of zero while acknowledging you might never get there. Admittedly some people find that a challenging change in thinking.

          If you are a police officer and believe it is acceptable to have any road deaths, than you should consider different employment. You have indeed failed.

        2. Separating out more ontological issues here, organisations are purposive. Their purpose can be expressed in explicit quantitative goals: zero road deaths; zero suicides. Fine, accepted.

          However, if that is indeed the purpose, then there are two implications
          1. If the authorising body i.e. government sets an explicit purpose (zero road deaths), then it must resource all actions contributing to that purpose (otherwise it is illogical). In practical terms: the government must fund all required outputs, which leads to diminishing returns. We run into a “cascade” where to validly reduce road deaths to zero might require expenditure in the hundreds of billions on a road-cop-n-very-corner or legislative change banning driving leading to economic loss in the hundreds of billions
          2. Any failure against any aspect of purpose is a failure of the organisation (a bucket with one leak or fifty is not a fit-for-purpose bucket). If the target is zero, one road death, or a million, is still a failure of purpose. This means that giving explicit, unachievable goals will likely render all organisations failures almost immediately. In such a situation, one is left with further implications: if an organisation fails, why do we have the organisation? If we cannot achieve our purpose, why do we exist? Consider that similar feelings drove Sartre and others to despair. I would not like to be in an organisation where it is statistically impossible to achieve one’s purpose.

          To have a target while saying you will never get there is entirely illogical. It immediately makes any resourcing pointless.

        3. “a bucket with one leak or fifty is not a fit-for-purpose bucket”

          A bucket with one leak can certainly be fit for purpose. You can still carry a lot of water in a large bucket with a small leak.

          I’d hate to see you in a housefire, arguing black and white pedantics about cracked buckets while your home burns down around you.

        4. “To have a target while saying you will never get there is entirely illogical. It immediately makes any resourcing pointless.”

          Sure, if you are the most defeatist person ever and see the purpose of a goal as a tick box, this is correct. If you’re anyone else, your target doesn’t have to be achievable (in every year).

        5. No. A twenty piece KFC bucket with one piece of chicken missing is clearly not fit for purpose. However nineteen pieces of chicken could feed anyone is beyond logic?

        6. I don’t see goals as tick boxes, which is why I don’t see the point in setting targets you can’t achieve (which is the definition of box ticking and setting goals for the purpose of setting goals).

          Perhaps I’m not communicating clearly. If an entity has a purpose, and doesn’t achieve that purpose, that entity has failed. If I say that I want to be an All Black, and I don’t become one, I have failed (because Entity Jdelh’s purpose is to be an All Black, it has not been an All Black, therefore entity Jdelh has failed)

        7. So by your logic to be successful my business should drop it’s profit goals and aim to make less money? And aiming for higher profitability that is certain to occur would be a failed company?

        8. But even your All Blacks analogy uses similar thinking. The All Blacks have a target to win every game they play. They know that they will almost certainly not actually achieve that, but that doesn’t mean they should stop trying to. Nor does it mean that everyone thinks of them as failures and starts questionning why they exist. The fact that their target is really hard to hit doesn’t mean they ought to stop using it as a target.

          Organisations use targets that are hard to hit all the time, I don’t think it’s that strange a concept to most people.

        9. Somehow, I don’t think I’m the one living in an ivory tower on this issue.

          You can play cute little mathematical games – a calculus of “acceptable” death with made-up figures. You think that makes you clever, but it actually makes you an asshole.

          The reality is that every preventable death by suicide, road crashes, or respiratory disease has a permanent effect on family and friends. You never totally get away from it. The statistics show that these problems are getting worse, and that New Zealand is – for some bewildering reason – tolerating far worse outcomes than the vast majority of other wealthy countries.

          If we want that to change, we have to change our attitudes about what is acceptable.

          One suicide was one too many for my family. I can’t imagine saying to another family: “Sorry about your loss, but we’ve got a target of no more than 300 suicides this year and your child/parent/sibling was only number 235, so it’s really not that bad.”

        10. Oh, and just a further point. Statistics from an article I referred to below show that 40% of the people who committed suicide had interacted with the mental health system in the last 12 months.

          Each of those people is a case where the system failed. We should make it a priority to investigate all of those cases in detail and figure out *why* people didn’t get the help they needed from the system.

        11. OK
          What is a preventable death, what is a non-preventable death, and why – if there is a goal of zero road deaths – would you not ban driving?

        12. Because there is always trade offs in life.

          Take HSEQ a company will take a view of Zero Harm so a vision of Zero Injuries.

          Will they stop work no.

          A person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) will ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of workers, and that other persons are not put at risk by its work. Risks that arise from work must be eliminated so far as is reasonably practicable. If a risk can’t be eliminated, it must be minimised so far as is reasonably practicable.

          The question is then has the Government taken reasonable practicable steps to

          1. Reduce the Road Toll – No because they have invested the lion share into a few 4 star rated offline expressways rather than concentrated on bringing most of NZ dangerous roads up to 3 start rating which has been demonstrated would result in lower deaths/injuries across the network. They have also failed to modernise regulation to international best practice regarding setting of speeds and street/road design. They have failed to keep recidivist drink drivers off the roads due to simply suspending licences rather than addressing any alcohol addition or abuse.

          2. Mental Health – No on so many levels it would take a National Inquiry.

          3. Preventable Deaths – No they have been shown that Safe Healthy Homes has a high BCR due to the heavily expensive downstream effects of not doing it. What type of person lets people get sick and die when it actually costs less than doing nothing when the ambulance is at the bottom of the cliff..

        13. JDELH you seem to be really struggling with this. It might help to think about this scenario:

          What do you view as an acceptable number of road deaths per year for members of your family travelling as passengers in your car?

          If the answer isn’t zero then you need to get help, but let’s assume it is.

          But I imagine that like most people you do still drive family members as passengers in your car. You just take all reasonable steps to ensure their safety.

          There is no contradiction. It is not illogical.

        14. “What do you view as an acceptable number of road deaths per year for members of your family travelling as passengers in your car?
          Well put Nick. It’s all very well people like jdelph dismissing the death of people as an inevitability or a statistic until it’s put to them in personal terms, then it changes.

        15. What does “reasonably practicable” mean?

          Personally, I’m willing to accept an increase in risk for me – and my family – from 0% to 0.00001%.

          But more importantly, I don’t let my own personal views actually affect my view on sound policy, because that’s something best left in the dark ages.

      3. Yes. Having a serious target of 0 deaths and acknowledging that human activity cannot ever be 100% safe are NOT contradictory.

        As a road safety auditor, I constantly see improvement suggestions dismissed because “too hard”, which in other countries would have been done in the first place. It’s our culture that is wrong, not reality.

        1. Yes it is!

          If the goal is ZERO DEATHS then unless you achieve that goal, you have failed, and all resourcing is irrelevant (i.e. spend $1m to avoid 10 deaths, spend $500m to avoid 200 deaths, it doesn’t matter, because it’s still failure)

          It’s pretty simple and binary. You either achieve or you don’t.

          Whereas if the goal is DEATH REDUCTION then every single gain is worthwhile.

          Now, if you argue that it *is* worthwhile reducing deaths then you’re also saying that a death reduction target is worthwhile. If you argue that only zero deaths is worthy then you’re also saying we shouldn’t resource unless we can guarantee that outcome

        2. “If you argue that only zero deaths is worthy ”

          Then maybe, like everyone else on this thread has managed to do, you should stop doing it?

    2. Actually reducing travelling speed of motor vehicles to 30 km/h would be very likely to result in zero deaths. If that was the default speed limit and anything higher had to be justified by the creation of increased safety measures (i.e. fully separated cycle paths, hard medians) we would go a long way to achieving that goal.

      If you think setting a target and not quite reaching it is failure, I sure hope you don’t run a business with profit targets. You must constantly be living in despair.

      1. Indeed. Let’s look at how we adopt (or shun) AT’s excellent Quality of Service tool for cycling. It’s based on international safety research, and once it is applied to Auckland it shows that we’ve got a lot of changes due. Which, of course, we already know, because we already know our city is not safe for cycling.

        Using the tool, we will need to retrofit every 50 km/hr road with a cyclelane (if we can keep the speed below 50 km/hr) or with a protected cycleway (if we can’t). OR we need to reduce it to a 25 km/hr road (which leaves a margin for people to overshoot to 30 km/hr).

        We’re talking most of Auckland, here.

        So is the AT Cycling and Walking Team going to have to drip-feed protected cycleways in at a few km per year? Or can we grasp our problem with death and do something about it: Reduce every road to 30 km/hr until we can install separated cycleways. Then watch the clamour for separated cycleways. Might even become CoNS then. Might even be worth a few billion.

        1. I totally agree with yoi except: “our city is not safe for cycling”

          I really have to disagree. I think the cit doesn’t FEEL safe for cycling (David Hembrow’s “subjective safety” –

          This discourages people from cycling and low numbers of people cycling make cycling less safe. Statistically, cycling is a lot safer than a lot of other activities that people perform every day and never think anything of. Plus things like skiing and horse riding are more dangerous than cycling but are not thought of as dangerous.

          Small point but one that I think is important. Otherwise agree with you 100% on how we need our streets to operate.

        2. I agree with trying to understand actual risks and revealing with research the difference between high risks we’re accustomed to and low risks we fear.

          But, do you think our city is safe to ride in for children? If not, it isn’t safe. (Putting stranger danger aside here.) Also, the percentage of women cycling is low compared to other cities – this is another indicator that the city isn’t safe to cycle in. But finally – didn’t someone post recently that the risk of a serious accident for a cyclist in NZ was 10 times that of a serious accident for someone in a car? (I think it was for NZ not Auckland but I can’t remember.)

          I don’t want NZ to follow Aus’s example – here’s a link mfwic gave the other day:

  3. A sad but well written post Peter. While we can look at individual causes for each issue, from mental health funding to inadequate building regulations, I think the biggest overall cause is rising inequality. Many countries, including New Zealand, have achieved economic growth post GFC, at least in GDP terms, but with little or no growth in median wages, and falls in real wages. So obviously, as the rich get richer, there are still some very poor people. When you can’t afford a heater, you are poor. Inequality affects housing, diet, education and through all these things, in the long term, health as well. I think suicide is also often linked to mental health resources, which rely on the public health system. So when governments cut health funding, or does not increase it to match rising needs, mental health funding often gets squeezed.

    As for road casualties, it certainly gives the lie to the assumption that building more freeways reduces road deaths. The increased driving induced more than makes up for any gain in safety.

    1. Motorways generally have a good safety record. The problem is that AT and NZTA have looked at that and thought the answer is to make all roads a de facto motorway.

      Instead, we should be making motorways (where pedestrians and cyclist are not allowed) the main way to travel and once a motor vehicle leaves the motorway, ensuring their unimpeded travel is a low priority. Low speeds of 30 km/h on residential streets is a great start.

  4. If anyone wants to do further reading on suicide the Chief Science Advisor did an excellent discussion paper.

    A journalist did a seemly well researched article on suicide and social media

    Former Children’s Commissioner Ian Hassall describes some disturbing facts, which has had him concerned about youth suicide for a long time.

    “I became interested in youth suicide in the early 1990s during my term as Commissioner for Children.”

    “At that time there had been a sudden, startling increase in these deaths. The suicide rate for New Zealand males aged 15-19 had doubled in the course of three years from 16 per 100,000 in 1985 to 32 per 100,000 in 1988. This spectacular and sustained rise had given New Zealand the highest youth suicide rate in the OECD.”

    I was born in 1970, which makes me a member of the leading edge of the NZ’s increasingly suicidal cohort.

  5. The drop in the road deaths in 13/14 came after the ‘mantrol’ ad campaign in 2011. Most road safety ads which go for guilt that you are a bad driver, pain of being injured, death or emotion consequences.The problem with these ads are that they are negative and they don’t connect, ie I’m a good driver, its those other idiots that need to drive better. It wont happen to me.
    The Mantrol ads were a positive campaign that spoke to males that a good male knows their limits and is a protector of their mates and other members of society. You are a good driver but things go wrong and a skilled driver should take that into account.
    I would like to see this campaign rerun or a similar one created to see if there would be a similar drop in deaths.

    Video for mantrol
    ▶ 1:01

  6. We put too many people in prison.
    The cost is more than $100 000 pa per prisoner.
    A new $Billion prison near Hamilton is coming.
    Its better to spend the money on education, houses etc

    1. The success of prisons, like everything else, can’t be measured by cost. You have to also think about the benefits. Some people are capable of doing a hell of a lot of harm to other people and the best place to put them is in a prison. Not because we expect to reform them, not to punish them, but simply to stop them doing more harm for as long as necessary. For some that might mean keeping them locked up until they are old enough to not be angry anymore. I have no doubt we can improve our prisons and give people meaningful things to do and teach people to read, but the basic principle should be incarceration until they are safe.

      1. That argument is appropriate for a very small minority of the prison population, and doesn’t even include the fact that many of the others will come out of prison a worse danger than before – because their negative tendencies in this environment are strengthened, and because they are now having to deal with the extra stigma of having been a prisoner once outside again. The “benefits” of prisons may be real (sometimes) but in many cases are significantly outweighed by the downsides.

        Seeing that we all have the same human genes, I don’t accept the idea that we have to be up there with the United States with prison population percentages when other countries clearly make it work better with much less incarceration.

      2. “Some people are capable of doing a hell of a lot of harm to other people and the best place to put them is in a prison.”

        I don’t think anyone is suggesting that we release that tiny minority of the prison population.

      3. And why do you think that NZ and the USA in particular incarcerate so many more people per capita than other countries? You don’t think private prisons have anything to do with it?

    2. More money into prevention by reducing relative poverty and inequality, is more effective than spending insane amounts on locking everyone up.

  7. Relevant:

    “Approximately 40 per cent of suicides in New Zealand are by people who accessed specialist mental health services in the 12 months prior to their death. These are usually people with long-term mental health challenges, considered “too serious” for GPs to handle by themselves and are meant to be 3 percent of the population (increased demand means the number is currently 3.5 percent).”

    What. The. Fuck. These are preventable deaths.

      1. That is a shocker. Somehow as a country we managed to deal with poverty among old people. They used to be cold, hungry and in poor housing. Most of that was fixed through universal social welfare. But for some reason poverty among children still faces the hurdle of some people blaming them or their parents and claiming that we shouldn’t even try to fix it. I don’t understand it, but I do understand that after 9 years of National we now have more pricks among us than ever before.

  8. To the rational types who think that a goal of zero is not appropriate: please imagine you’re the CEO of Boeing or Airbus. Please tell us what you think is an appropriate target for the number of people who are killed each year in major air disasters caused by manufacturing flaws in your aircraft.

  9. As others have said, rising in-equality between the “haves and have nots”.

    People aiming for a manufactured sense of happiness that will never be achieved through buying the latest phone gadget, clothing, shoes, new car or house. Running in the never ending rat race to get try and get to the top, only to realise you have no friends once you get to the top.

    So many social costs / tragedies through in-equality – increase in crime, increase in healthcare costs, increase in violence, increase in suicide.

    1. FACT – Crime has decreased, there is no evidence that violence has increased and health care costs have not increased.

      You’re on greater auckland blog, not the daily blog

      1. I’m talking about increase in health care costs as a country – not an individuals cost to access healthcare.
        I’m using some broad global statistics, but yes, I stand by my comments on inequality vs social costs

      2. Violent crime has decreased but crimes like burglary have increased. That screams of financial desperation. And if the desperation gets bad enough, people will resort to increasingly risky acts as they will have nothing to lose.

  10. In reply JDELH

    For myself I would like to be included as “our people” sadly NZTA doesn’t excludes me.

    NZTA has Zero Harm
    “By 2020 or sooner all our people*, regardless of employer will go home safe and healthy**, every day, no exceptions”

    But I will be included in proposed Access Hamilton Strategy target of Zero traffic death.
    (My note showed Hamilton Cities at zero in 2001)

    Reading the history of dekra reports many cities are having Zero traffic deaths.
    Page 28 – “This data shows that 922 towns/cities with over 50,000 inhabitants recorded at least one year with zero traffic fatalities between 2009 and 2015”

  11. Editor’s note: This comment has been deleted as it does not meet our comment guidelines. Responding to this quite serious topic with “whataboutism” and attempts to deflect to other issues, without citing facts, are not acceptable. Any further comments along this line will result in your comments being placed in compulsory modification.

    For reference, Greater Auckland has previously been critical of the slow pace of improvements to rail level crossing safety. See here:

    And here for some practical suggestions and analysis:

    1. Suicide ideation and attempts are similar between males and females however.

      The difference is explained by the methods on average chosen by men which have higher lethality.

      This is a great example of how statistics can be misleading.

      1. Editor’s note: This comment has been deleted as it does not meet our comment guidelines.

        While men are over-represented in the suicide statistics, it is not acceptable to trivialise or diminish female suicides. Any further comments along this line will result in you being placed in compulsory moderation.

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