Last year was terrible on Aotearoa’s roads, with 379 people tragically and unnecessarily losing their lives, the highest number in a calendar year since 2009. Last year’s toll also represents a grim and ongoing reversal: a massive 50% higher than the 253 lives lost in 2013, which was a historic low after a decade of steady reduction in road deaths.
You can see the trends, with changes of government noted, in the graph below.
And it’s exactly the fact we have achieved so much better outcomes in the recent past that makes it absurd that government officials are wanting to lower the targets set of them in the Road to Zero programme, which currently aims for no more than 227 annual deaths by 2030. Apparently even that number of lives lost is being seen by some as “unrealistic”.
Government agencies are admitting failure in their attempts to make roads safer, with officials last year advising ministers a target to reduce deaths and serious injuries by 40 per cent over a decade was unrealistic.
The road toll has soared this year and is on par with 2018, the worst year for road deaths in recent memory.
But less than two years into the strategy, officials advised ministers it was not going to be achievable.
According to documents received under the Official Information Act (OIA), in November 2021, Waka Kotahi updated its forecasts on what could be achieved.
The 40 per cent target was not achievable, with a new “realistic” target of 33 per cent touted.
“Under-performance on some key actions put the 2030 target at risk,” the document said.
“Those forecasts indicate that Road to Zero actions could realistically achieve a 33 per cent reduction in DSI [deaths and serious injuries] by 2030, down from the targeted 40 per cent.”
By dropping the target, roughly 140 people would be expected to die on the roads this decade that the government had planned to save with their road safety improvements.
The reason for the need to adjust the target was the government’s road safety partners – the police, Waka Kotahi and the Ministry of Transport – failing to deliver on their targets.
Lowering the reduction target to 33 per cent would only equal that 2013 result – in other words, holding our 2030 goals to what we recently achieved and then lost.
It’s unclear what the government’s response to officials was, but I certainly hope they told them no, and that it was outrageous to even suggest changing goals because of their own failure in delivery. The article continues:
Waka Kotahi has also missed targets, mainly in regards to infrastructure.
It was supposed to build 100km of median barriers per year, and 400km by 2024.
Last year it built 13km of median barriers, and in total it has only built 50km of median barriers since the Road to Zero plan began in 2020.
Waka Kotahi is also short of targets for side barriers and other safety features.
Sometimes it seems like Waka Kotahi spends more time scheming on how to get the government to build more motorways around the country than it does on improving safety. Perhaps they’re worried that if the safety issue is resolved, it removes most of the justification for those motorways.
To be fair, the government probably haven’t helped here by loading up Waka Kotahi with a new batch of mega projects to distract themselves with, most notably those funded as part of the NZ Upgrade Programme, such as Penlink and Otaki to North of Levin, and more recently the Additional Waitemata Harbour Crossing.
Asking the agency to prioritise safety under these conditions seems a bit like the equivalent of asking a child to eat their veges while having filled up their plate with lollies.
The one area where progress is being made is on changing speed limits to improve safety outcomes. Despite the noise that is often associated with it, this still only represents a small percentage of the total road network. The Herald reports:
Waka Kotahi estimated that more than 85 per cent of speed limits in New Zealand are above their technical definition of “safe and appropriate”, a threshold that is based on different criteria and factors, such as the design of the road, crash survivability and community wellbeing.
Currently, Waka Kotahi’s Interim State Highway Speed Management Plan 2023-2024 includes speed limit changes to 97 state highway corridors, which account for 350km of the 11,000km of state highway network. The interim plan also includes proposed changes to several hundred schools and marae.
From that same article, I do have to laugh at this comment.
National’s transport spokesperson Simeon Brown said he supported reduced speed limits around schools, but not “blanket” reductions across the state highway network.
“What we have is a Government that is focused on low-hanging fruit, which is reducing speed limits rather than building better roads,” Brown said.
Since when has “focusing on the low-hanging fruit” been a bad thing. The very definition of the phrase is “the obvious or easy things that can be most readily done or dealt with in achieving success or making progress toward an objective“. (And why are blanket protections that help keep our children safer only applicable in the immediate vicinity of schools, but not while they’re travelling further afield?)
Waka Kotahi aren’t alone in underachieving on road safety. The Police have also missed their targets, while at the local level, Auckland Transport and other local authorities have far too often delayed, cancelled or ignored critical safety improvements – especially much-needed cycle – because of the complaints of a few locals who simply don’t want change, no matter the evidence. Why do the agencies bend to ignorance and intransigence when lives are at stake?
Finally, not only do we know better results are possible because we’ve achieved it before – we also know it’s possible based on what we see overseas.
New Zealand currently has around 7.4 road deaths per 100,000 people. Over in Australia it’s 4.5, while in countries like Norway and Sweden it’s around 2. In other words, our roads are verging on twice as lethal as our trans-Tasman cousins, and nearly four times more lethal than peer countries in the Northern Hemisphere.
Worse, we’re more or less aiming to fall further behind on this. New Zealand’s target for 2030 is 4.2 – which is still twice that of those leading countries, and they’ll likely improve further by then, too.
Achieving our road safety targets requires all of our agencies to relentlessly bring their most ambitious efforts. They need to harden up and step up, not push to have targets lowered and public expectations softened.
And let’s have no more excuses from agencies or politicians about what’s “realistic” – especially after this devastating holiday period. As if it’s “realistic” to effectively keep telling hundreds of families and communities every year to wave their loved ones off on trips, short and long, every day of the year, and just cross fingers they’ll come home alive.