This is a guest post by the Minister of Transport, Michael Wood. The piece was originally published as an op-ed on the New Zealand Herald (paywalled), and is republished here with permission from the Minister’s office. Images and captions have been added by Greater Auckland.
I would like to thank the Herald for its focus on road safety over the summer months. With 8,090 deaths on our roads since 2000, and tens of thousands life-changing injuries, few topics are as important to me as Transport Minister. The worst moment of my week is receiving a report each Friday that gives an overview of all road fatalities in the preceding 7 days. In the final month of 2021 alone there were 28 deaths, with victims ranging from 13 to 80 years old. They came from cities, towns, and the regions; they were drivers, passengers, pedestrians, motorcyclists, and cyclists. Every single life lost rippled through whanau and communities. Simply put, the carnage is awful.
Across news reports, columns, and letters, people have offered their views as to what can be done to reduce road deaths. The good news is that we know that the right mix of policies can make a difference. We know this because it has happened, both here and overseas. New Zealand’s worst year on the roads was 1973, when 843 people were killed. Between 1985 and 1990 over 700 people were killed each year. At 320 road deaths in 2021 we are still losing far too many people, but clearly changes across road design, vehicle safety standards, speed enforcement, seat-belt wearing, and massive changes in the legal and social tolerance for drunk driving have made a significant difference. Countries such as Sweden and Ireland, and the state of Victoria, have all shown in recent years that a system-wide, evidence-led approach can push road deaths even lower.
This is the approach that our Government has adopted here in New Zealand. It’s a strategy called ‘Road to Zero’, and its fundamental premise is that we should not accept any road deaths. We need a comprehensive approach that takes what we know about deaths and serious injuries on our roads, and implements changes that we know will make a difference. This is not about any single initiative but about how we develop a safe system that includes safe vehicles, safe speeds, safe road use, and safe roads. So when Simon Wilson puts forward evidence that safer speeds make a difference he is right. When Greg Murphy argues that good driver education is important, he is right. When Steven Joyce states that well-engineered roads make a difference, he is right too. Under Road to Zero we are investing in all of these areas at record levels, with over $10 billion allocated over the next decade to save lives.
Here’s the key thing about Road to Zero: it recognises that drivers make mistakes. Across the billions of kilometres travelled by Kiwis every year, people will get it wrong, even those who consider themselves good drivers. This is where we need to address the elephant in the room – speed. Speaking plainly, this is one of the most difficult areas for us to discuss because the evidence and public opinion are often at odds. Speed makes a major difference for a number of reasons.
Firstly, modern analysis of road conditions can provide strong technical advice about what a “safe and appropriate” speed is for a particular section of road. Due to historic setting of speed limits without this kind of analysis, the limits on some of our roads are higher than the safe and appropriate level. While speed was not the only determinant in all of the 28 road deaths in the final four weeks of 2021, in all but seven of those cases, the speed limit in place was higher than the assessed safe and appropriate limit.
Secondly, speed makes a major difference if and when a crash happens. Drivers have more time to react, the sheer physical forces involved are escalated at higher speeds, and the fatality rates increase markedly at higher speeds. As Simon Wilson pointed out, there is a 95% chance of death if a car hits a pedestrian at 60 km/h, and this reduces to 32% at 40 km/h. If we want to reduce deaths and serious injuries then we need to ensure that roads are more forgiving if a crash occurs, and that speed limits are set safely.
In his column, Steven Joyce is critical of moves to set safer speeds across the network. He characterises this as some kind of ideological approach. It is not, and rather than firing political broadsides I would challenge him to engage with the overwhelming body of evidence which shows that safe speeds make a difference. If he has competing evidence, let’s hear it. Recently released data shows that in the year since safer speed limits were set on State Highway 6 between Nelson and Blenheim, there have been no deaths (5 in the preceding two years), and just one serious injury crash (15 in the preceding two years).
Waka Kotahi and the government faced huge criticism for this change at the time, but I stand by it. Our work to set safer speeds is saving lives, and will continue to do so – for me as Minister there is nothing more important. I ask other regional leaders including Mayors in Hawke’s Bay who are currently campaigning to retain speed limits that we know to be unsafe to think about this and to consider doing the right thing, rather than just what is perceived to be the popular thing.
As I said, a safe system includes safe speeds, but also a range of other factors including safer roads. Steven Joyce made an interesting comment about the value of investment in separated dual carriageways on the State Highway network, which was a hallmark of his time as Minister. I agree that in the right places, these investments can have a benefit and improve safety. The issue is that a myopic focus on these very expensive interventions across a small part of the network meant that the bread and butter of good road maintenance – improvements to tricky bends, installing side and median barriers and the like – were starved of investment.
Our investment through Road to Zero is resulting in ongoing improvements across the network with a focus on areas we know to be dangerous. This evidence-based approach will deliver much bigger safety benefits than a small number of politically-motivated State Highway projects. Steven Joyce quotes the recent low point for the road toll of 253 reached in 2013, but fails to mention that between then and 2017 the number of deaths increased by around 50% to 378. We have begun to turn that around, but there is still much more to be done.
Across the rest of the Road to Zero programme there is a huge amount of work that will occur over the coming year to keep Kiwis safer on our roads, including the finalisation of drug driving legislation, improved vehicle safety standards, a strengthened road safety partnership with NZ Police, the commencement of a Ministerial Oversight Group to coordinate government action, the final stage of the ‘Accessible Streets’ regulatory package to improve pedestrian safety, the confirmation of a new speed rule with a focus on safe speeds around schools, a review of fines and penalties, and the ongoing roll-out of a large programme of maintenance and improvements to roads all over the country.
Our Government will do everything we can to reduce the number of deaths and serious injuries on our roads, but this has to be a shared national effort. Excessive speed, fatigue, impairment, and a failure to wear seatbelts all contribute to deaths and serious injuries, and enormous pain across the country. In 12 of those 28 deaths at the end of last year, no suitable restraint was worn – so please make it click in 2022!
By following the latest evidence and working together as a country against COVID-19 we have saved many lives. Let’s apply the same approach to saving lives on our roads.