In February last year, the Swedish Government hosted the 3rd Global Ministerial Conference on Road Safety, at the request of the UN General Assembly. The conference culminated in the Stockholm Declaration, which resolves to strengthen efforts to improve safety. This declaration provides critical guidance for New Zealand as we strive to transform our transport system from tragically taking the life of one person a day, on average, into a system without death or serious injury.
Some history to the Stockholm Declaration 2020
In 2010, traffic crashes claimed nearly 1.3 million lives internationally. The UN responded to this crisis in road safety with the Global Plan for the Decade of Action for Road Safety 2011–2020. In 2015, the UN produced the plan Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which called for traffic fatalities to be halved by 2030. Yet while many countries’ practices improved, other countries failed to make much headway. The WHO’s Global status report on road safety 2018 reported traffic fatalities had risen to 1.35 million lives lost per year, and said:
Road traffic injury is now the leading cause of death for children and young adults aged 5–29 years…
We must return our streets to our children. They have a right to feel safe on them…
The UN appointed an Academic Expert Group, chaired by Prof. Claes Tingvall of the Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, to produce a set of recommendations for a 2nd Decade of Action for Global Road Safety:
The Academic Expert Group considers these additional recommendations to be essential strategic prerequisites for achieving the goal of reducing global road traffic fatalities by half by 2030. These recommendations are necessarily far-reaching both in scope and ambition. The Group believes that the best strategy for reaching the goal for the second decade is to maintain commitment to prior recommendations and immediately initiate action on each of these new recommendations with sufficient intensity to achieve substantial progress by the middle of the decade…
From these expert recommendations, a draft declaration was penned and Governments were asked for their feedback. This was assimilated into a final version, the Stockholm Declaration, which was read out at the Ministerial Conference in Sweden in February last year and endorsed by the UN in August.
In this post I would like to discuss the input given by New Zealand’s Ministry of Transport on the draft Stockholm Declaration, sent to the Secretariat for EU and International Affairs in January 2020. The feedback consistently sought to reduce the declaration’s strength.
The draft Stockholm Declaration called upon member states to reduce road traffic fatalities by 50% by 2030. NZ’s Ministry of Transport didn’t suggest a change to this figure but did suggest the wording be softened:
The call to soften the statement was successful, albeit with slightly different wording to the Ministry’s suggestion.
The reasoning the Ministry gave for their suggestion is:
We commend this aspirational global goal, but have concerns about the ability of some (particularly lower income) Member States to achieve a 50% reduction by 2030, given the scale and level of investment and lead-in time required on the key actions that the evidence tells us can make the biggest impact on road safety.
We note that New Zealand has recently introduced a 40% reduction target under its new road safety strategy. This was determined by the Government as being an ambitious but achievable target, based on modelling of a substantial programme of road safety interventions over the next 10 years, including considerably increasing our investment in safety infrastructure, targeted speed limit changes on the highest risk parts of the network, increasing levels of enforcement (including building a new camera network), and lifting the standards of our vehicle fleet.
Given the challenges New Zealand faces in achieving its 40% target, even whilst putting in place many of the key interventions that are being considered as part of the Stockholm Declaration, we imagine that lower income countries may find this even harder, and note also that countries further advanced are beginning to see rates of deaths and serious injuries stabilising.
New Zealand’s story can indeed help inform international advice. Yet our story is not that safety improvements have proven too expensive for a rapid reduction in crash and injury rates to be viewed as pragmatic. Rather, our story is a warning of what happens when the most economical ways to rapidly improve safety are resisted:
- Our speed limits are systematically too high across the network. At least 87% of New Zealand does not have a safe and appropriate speed limit. The government has declined to use default speed limit changes, despite considerable support for this approach in feedback.
- We are still building and widening roads, thus inducing traffic. This exacerbates our safety problems and wastes transport budget that could be used on safety.
- We have not introduced significant urban road reallocation programmes to fast-track modeshift to public and active transport modes.
- We have not introduced a comprehensive red light camera enforcement programme, despite evidence that it pays for itself quickly. The benefit cost ratio is positive, and Waka Kotahi note that costs per installation would likely be much lower if a mass-action programme were progressed, due to economies of scale.
- Similarly, we have not introduced comprehensive speed limit camera enforcement, despite the evidence that speed cameras pay for themselves within a short period of time.
- We have not made significant investment in regional rail and coach despite the enormous safety gains this would provide – in fact, we’re barely collecting the data to allow evidenced-based decision making.
- Our vehicle safety standards are lagging behind those of other OECD countries.
- We have not introduced annual targets for vehicle travel reduction to all our transport planning (eg 7% reduction per year) despite this approach relieving pressure on transport investment and improving safety outcomes.
- We have allowed politics and backlash to interrupt and delay moves to introduce better road rules and transport practices to better serve vulnerable road users.
Many of the changes above are cost neutral; some would save us money, and if we stop wasting multiple billions of dollars on new road building we would have plenty of money available for safety improvements. A whole of government approach would recognise that failing to take these steps is placing an enormous economic burden on our country, including via health and environment costs.
In short, the Ministry’s suggestions contributed to a softening of the wording, which could reduce efforts to achieve the 50% target in a number of countries. Yet the suggestions did not accurately reflect our national experience of the true costs of investment in safety.
The Academic Expert Group recommended:
that cities mandate a maximum road travel speed limit of 30 kph unless strong evidence exists that higher speeds are safe.
This was changed from “cities” to “areas where vulnerable road users and vehicles mix” for the draft declaration before it was circulated to governments. This wording change increases the scope to include towns and regional pathways where there’s a lot of mixing of modes. It also, correctly, excludes those parts of cities where vulnerable road users are excluded, such as motorways. I mention it because it is good to understand the Academic Expert Group believe the 30 km/hr speed limit should be applied, in general, to cities. This adds extra clarity to the Vision Zero statements.
The Ministry’s suggestion was that these speeds should only be ‘encouraged”.
Here is the reasoning behind their suggestion:
We strongly support the intent of this Article, and note that New Zealand has recently introduced a new approach to speed management, which includes the requirement for road controlling authorities to reduce speed limits around urban schools to 30 km/hr (or 40 km/h where appropriate) and around rural schools to a maximum of 60 km/h. We have also encouraged local Government to consider lower speeds in areas where there is significant interaction between vehicles and other vulnerable users, as well as introducing a new approach to speed cameras and speed enforcement.
However, there may sometimes be valid reasons for the speed limit on certain roads to be 40 km/hr or higher, or for variable speed limits, to be set on certain roads. While the rationale for this may involve strong evidence that the higher speeds are safe, there may also be other appropriate factors that mean mandating a blanket and fixed travel speed limit may not be practicable or necessarily lead to improved road safety outcomes overall.
For example, some local authorities in New Zealand have already changed speeds to 40 km/h outside schools. We believe focussing effort and investment on reducing the speeds around schools that still have speeds higher than 40 km/hr will have a bigger impact on safety outcomes overall in New Zealand, rather than mandating reducing schools from 40 km to 30 km in the short to medium term.
This is an outright rejection of Vision Zero, so it is good the Ministry were not successful in their bid to dilute the goal. The Ministry should not be claiming there are “valid reasons” for higher speed limits where vulnerable road users and vehicles mix and where there is no strong evidence that higher speeds are safe.
Nor should they have so specifically rejected the idea of achieving 30 km/hr outside all schools, urban and rural. These are places where vulnerable road users and vehicles do mix.
This resistance to following the international advice on safer speeds continues; in Waka Kotahi’s current consultion on speed limits, they have ignored the Stockholm Declaration outright by choosing not to introduce 30 km/hr speed limits throughout cities and outside all schools, urban and rural, as the declaration requires.
The Ministry’s reasoning above isn’t focused on protecting our children. It can be contrasted with the focus given by the Academic Expert Group to children, recommending governments study the routes children travel:
In order to protect the lives, security and well-being of children and ensure the education and sustainability of future generations, we recommend that cities, road authorities and citizens examine the routes frequently traveled by children to attend school and for other purposes, identify needs, including changes that encourage active modes such as walking and cycling, and incorporate Safe System principles to eliminate risks along these routes.
It can also be contrasted with New Zealanders’ level of concern. One of the themes of feedback for NZ’s Road to Zero policy was:
a call for more attention to be paid to the mobility needs of disabled people and the specific vulnerabilities of particular groups, including children, pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists, and economically disadvantaged communities
The Academic Expert Group recommended:
In order to achieve higher and more equitable levels of road safety across the globe, we recommend that vehicle manufacturers, governments and fleet purchasers ensure that all vehicles produced for every market be equipped with recommended levels of safety performance, that incentives for use of vehicles with enhanced safety performance be provided where possible, and that the highest possible levels of vehicle safety performance be required for vehicles used in private and public vehicle fleets.
This is a serious issue for New Zealand, as:
New Zealand has a high proportion of unsafe vehicles. About 45% of the light vehicles in New Zealand’s fleet have a safety rating of 1- or 2 stars out of five – and you’re 90% more likely to die in a 1 star car than a 5 star car.
The Ministry recommended that governments promote, rather than ensure, safer vehicle fleets, and again they were not successful – although the feedback from other countries clearly softened it to only new vehicles, which is a significant change:
Here is the Ministry’s reasoning:
We agree that improving the level of safety performance in vehicles is critical to achieving reductions in deaths and serious injuries. We note that some member states (particularly in the EU) have strong levers to set regulations for vehicles entering their market. However, smaller states (such as New Zealand) have a considerable used car market and therefore rely on the import of vehicles produced in foreign countries outside of our regulatory control.
For example, the vast majority of New Zealand’s vehicles are sourced from Japan, which traditionally has not regulated specific safety standards at the same pace as the EU. This also means that without careful transition of our vehicle fleet, there may be significant impacts on social equity and access for New Zealanders.
Nevertheless, raising standards for vehicles entering New Zealand is a key road safety action for 2020-2022. A comprehensive policy investigation is underway to assess whether regulations should be introduced to mandate key safety technologies, while mitigating supply and equity issues for consumers.
There are many avenues the Government should be pursuing to improve the safety of our passenger vehicles, light trucks and heavy trucks. But timely improvement is unlikely if the Ministry insist their role is only to “promote” safer vehicles.
The argument about equity ignores two points:
- Our population are paying the price for sluggish policy on vehicle fleets with their lives and health. The most extreme form of inequity is to die in order to let others have cheaper cars.
- The Ministry should be adopting transport policy that simultaneously improves safety, environmental and equity outcomes. This is achievable via a radical reduction in the public’s reliance on vehicles, and is entirely consistent with improving the vehicle fleet at the same time.
Each of the suggestions made by our Ministry on the Stockholm Declaration wording involved a weakening of the safety focus.
I believe the Minister should be asking why these suggestions were made, and initiate a review into the quality of Vision Zero training provided for Ministry staff.