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.

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  1. Road code stated that people must drive to condition, stick to speed limit, obey road code, be courteous and do not drink and drive.
    If we all stick to this rules above, the road toll would be lot lower.
    Unfortunately there are some drivers who will do bad overtaking, using mobile phone, not keeping safe following distance especially in wet weather, not keeping eye on road and surrounding and some drink and drive.
    I had the unfortunate experience of witnessing head on collision in front of me just after Christmas. The drivers are all ok which is was lucky as the speed limit was 60kph. If this was at 100kph, the outcome would be vastly different. I was able to avoid it as I was keeping a safe following distance and keep eye on road and surrounding, hence was able to brake safely to the shoulder of the road.
    These thing can happen without warning hence the need to be vigilant.

    1. I’ve had a head on collision at about 20km and the results were horrifying: radiator pushed right up to the windscreen. I wouldn’t want to think what a 100km head on looks like.

    2. Sticking to the road rules would have some effect, but not as much as most people seem to believe. Studies both in NZ and Australia have found that well over half of all serious/fatal crashes were simply the result of someone making a human error (e.g. briefly distracted, misjudged a gap or curve). You can’t educate or enforce your way out of that problem; instead you have to tackle the resulting consequences, e.g. slow people down before it happens or put in safety barriers to reduce the resulting injuries.

      1. True but better initial driver training and recurrent training/testing like the aviation industry would greatly reduce these “human errors”.

        1. And for that we would have to accept that a sizable portion of the population wouldn’t be able to meet those requirements. Already 1/3rd of the population don’t hold a driver’s license for one reason or another.

          In order to do that there would need to be a reasonable expectation that people should still be able to get around, even if it’s not as convenient as driving. Large spending on public transport, and active modes, including in very loss making areas.

        2. Drivers drive according to the driving culture rather than the training they’ve been given. Of course better *driving* would help reduce these errors, but the provision of training has been shown to be ineffective at achieving it. Other elements of safe system design are far more effective at doing so:

          enforcement, safe speed limits to begin with, built environment, consistent messaging, etc, and a healthier split between transport modes.

          We don’t have any of those things. That’s where our focus needs to be.

  2. Too much traffic is causing congestion so when people are finally clear of it, they drive faster and carelessly to recover some of the time they spent in the traffic jam. Making roads safer is one thing but what we’re still missing in the equation (on the action side) is how to reduce traffic. Especially between the cities. We need much better public transport options that would reduce the traffic volumes on the motorways. It’s so simple that it hurts.

    1. We need to take a more holistic view of causes of road tolls. No doubt more traffic does increase road tolls so maybe take away some of those lollies from Waka Kotahi and invest in ways to reduce traffic- public transport and intercity transport- buses or rail. Less cars on road = less chance of road tolls.

  3. thanks for the excellent article

    road deaths are a result of multiple factors. many in fact

    it would be interesting if a statistician could run some of these factors against the road toll and see if there is a significant relationship positive or negative over time.

    While the NZ Police like control the narrative on the this topic telling the public its only speed and alcohol that cause deaths on the road, this over simplified and really should be consider propaganda. They are only two of many factors.

    While there are many factors influencing the trend up and down that are rarely mentioned such as drive fatigue, road conditions, weather conditions, age, sex, ethnicity, driver skill…. the list goes on and is endless.

    However one factor that is NEVER mentioned and I believe has the most significant affect on reducing the road toll is car makers safety features in cars. I believe this has been the reason for the previous decline in road deaths over time but is never mentioned.

    I think the countries mentioned as having lower road tolls all have much newer and safer fleets of cars compared to older and less safe kiwi fleet.

    If a significant correlation could be shown between safety features and a reduction in deaths, it would be a fair easy process of making policy to ease out the older and less safe kiwi cars.

    BUT this is just a personal hunch.

    It would be nice to get someone to crunch the numbers and look for trends

    But while the Government controls the data and also the use of the data for propaganda for their vested interest of income generation, I guess people will continue to die

    needless and tragic deaths.

    1. You’ve kind of made a hypocritical post.
      On the one hand you say the police only talk about speed and alcohol, which you say there are multiple factors which influence the road death numbers (which I agree with – there’s many many factors).
      The article linked stated this from the Police Assistant Commissioner –

      “Behaviours included fatigue, impairment with alcohol or drugs, not wearing seatbelts, exceeding the speed limit, being distracted by cellphones or devices and sometimes drifting onto the wrong side of the road or rolling.”
      (ie – many factors).

      Then you just focus on vehicle safety, and then a conspiracy tangent about govt controlling the data …

  4. Cars enjoy an exalted status in this country like they do in the United States. Vision Zero has been unsuccessful in both countries. The writer of the Bloomberg piece below suggests few Americans care enough for that to change. Are we any different?

    In Norway there were 118 road deaths in 2022, up from 93 the previous year.
    In Norway cars are not afforded the same primacy on the roads and in society as they are in New Zealand.

    Is it significant that in this country Vision Zero is called the Road to Zero? Its focus is making roads safer for cars rather than making getting about safer for people.

    And why, when talking about the road toll, do we ignore the thouands of people who die every year from car pollution? Are they too, just an incidental cost of our car worship?

  5. Simeon Brown is an utter moron. He really fits National’s core values of being the party of the selfish and stupid.

    1. Yeah, an “interesting” quirk of Covid lockdowns in many places (incl NZ) is that, while the overall number of crashes often reduced due to less traffic out there, the relative severity of those crashes increased due to everyone being able to travel faster (due to less traffic being out there…)

      1. Which was predicted early on. As was the next stage: that this faster, more reckless driving would continue unless energetic attention to improving safety for active modes became the focus. With public transport understandably less attractive, there needed to be significant mode shift to active modes, which wasn’t going to happen while this reckless driving was happening.

  6. Police in the UK refused point blank to enforce blanket reductions in speed limits, arguing that the road design needs to physically enforce lower speeds.

    As drivers’ risk compensation behaviour swallows up the improvements in vehicle design safety, it’s down to roading authorities to give drivers the right signals, through the seat of our pants where necessary.

  7. I think a large part of the holdup with the median barriers is Waka Kotahi catering to right turns into driveways. They see adding any inconvenience and subsequent angst from locals as a total project stopper and collapse like a house of cards.

    Dome valley, the “stage 1” hasn’t even had its final design released. It was supposed to have pretty continuous median barriers but they have decided to “rescope” that part of the project after local landowner opposition and mostly just have a wider white line. All the stages that have fewer driveways are nearly done.

    The solution to me is clear:
    Where it’s easy, create new side road sections to consolidate some access. Onto existing side roads where possible. Add right turn facilities or roundabouts on the highway for these.
    Make sure there are U-turn facilities every couple km.
    And any remaining driveways just have to be left only. It’s a state highway. Not a local road. The primary purpose is to cater to long distance traffic. Tough bikkies. Get together with the council, and arrange to create a more substantial local road, perhaps there should be some limited pot of money for this available from the NZTA. It is still desirable to remove all direct driveways from busy state highways.

    1. Yes. It’s an unfortunate truth that the sector isn’t acknowledging what safe speeds actually mean: a completely new set of typologies. If we want speeds higher than 50 km/hr our road corridors can’t have driveways.

  8. What is very noticeable in NZ is the lack of shoulders on roads and passing lanes.
    If there is no shoulder (or minimal ones) then there is next to no tolerance for an error (or for avoiding hazards etc). Where possible all State Highways should have at least a 1m shoulder on each side of the road.
    It will mean less fatal vehicle leaving the road accidents and also less cyclists/pedestrian fatalities.
    Passing lanes also need to be added (particularly on roads that don’t have much in the way of long straights for overtaking). If you take away the “need” for dangerous overtaking then you immediately reduce the number of the most dangerous type of accidents – head on collisions. It also would help reduce driver frustrations/anger resulting in more social/less aggressive driving.

    One other thing to note about NZ roads (of all types) is the prevalence of roadside obstacles – power poles, trees etc. If there’s one of these obstacles on the exit of a corner then any vehicle impacting it is going to have a very serious crash (cars cut in half etc). There’s simply no need for it. Get the power co’s to relocate their poles away from the roadside (particularly away from corner exits) and remove other hazards from those locations – trees can be planted elsewhere back from the road. That also ties in with the road shoulders mentioned above… better to stay on the road in the first place. Side barriers have their place but are often not as good/are expensive/need constant repairs etc.

    Blanket speed reductions aren’t the answer and while on the face of it they sound like a good idea (physics of impact etc) in the real world they result in many unintended consequences which are often worse. But one example is overtaking; a car overtaking a truck (80km/h if lucky) at 100km/h can do so relatively quickly spending a minimal amount of time on the wrong side of the road (TED) where fatal head on collisions occur. Now if the limit is reduced to 80km/h then the time to overtake it when only going 3km/h faster than it is nearly 7x longer. So instead of taking say 4 seconds to overtake, you’re now taking 28 seconds. That’s 83m vs 620m… you see the issue here.
    We’re already seeing that in the uptick in fatalities ever since the police dropped their tolerance policy. No tolerance means people don’t overtake as quickly spending more time on the wrong side of the road – fatal head on collision.

    1. Not sure I agree with you regarding overtaking speeds. From my observation most people who are willing to overtake away from a passing lane are quite willing to break the speed limit by a significant margin. They will find a truck easier to pass at 80kmh than 90kmh.

    2. Saying that we need passing lanes to stop people doing dangerous overtakes is like saying we need to train the battered woman to make better sandwiches to stop her husband hitting her when he doesn’t like them.

      “Oh no the truck ahead of me is doing 3km less than the maximum speed. I MUST OVERTAKE IT, AND IT’S THE NZTA’s FAULT IF I HAVE A HEAD-ON.”
      No what those that feel like that need, is to settle the fuck down, maybe attend some emotional management classes.

      I have noted though that far more of the highway network needs yellow lines to prevent overtakes. Ie:
      There is no situation in which its is safe to perform an overtake on this corner. But white lines abound.

      I agree that passing lanes are nice, more roads should have them because it is a nicer experience. But they’re an extremely poor safety treatment. Passing dangerously is an active choice, not a mistake. There is an important distinction. We need enforcement for the former, and engineering for the latter.

      And the ultimate dangerous pass preventer, median barriers of course.

      I agree on the shoulders. They’re also functionally used as very crappy bike lanes or footpaths. Better than nothing I guess.

      1. No, not at all, you really need to stop with the false comparisons/analogies.
        Why does it matter that the truck is going 3km/h under the new limit?
        1) that’s now 23km/h under the old limit for other vehicles.
        2) trucks are notorious (almost 100% definitely) changeable with their speeds. Case in point: going up a hill a truck will often slow down to less than 50km/h despite flooring it. So now you’re going less than half what the original speed limit was (with less opportunities to overtake). Similarly trucks go around corners more slowly (so they don’t tip over) and they often slow down before descending a hill to keep their speed under control.
        Average truck speed now looks more like 70km/h than 80+ and you’ve just added up to 30% more time to a journey for other vehicles – 8 hour Auckland to Wellington now takes nearly 10 hours – That’s an unsafe amount of time to be driving so you’ll have more fatigue related crashes, or people will have to stop and take a break adding even more time to an already long journey.

        Agree that more sections of road need double yellow. It’s pretty crazy the amount of roads out there that have white lines when to overtake there would be madness! Some would say oh but what about tractors? To that, the answer is you can still overtake on a yellow so long as you partially remain on your side of the road (ie not fully on the other side) because they are travelling slowly it’s usually safe enough to pass them with care.

        1. You’ve shifted from talking about people “needing” to do dangerous overtakes, you’re talking about journey times. Sure, and that’s what passing lanes primary measurable benefit is, improving journey times for the least valuable vehicle class. But people don’t NEED to do dangerous overtakes. If the trip is getting too long, pull over and have a break, a nap or something. This is risk that the bottom 20% of drivers can reasonably be expected to manage. Even from that most charitable standpoint, the need to do a dangerous pass simply doesn’t exist outside of the minds of the likes of geoff upsom who want to blame others for their lack of self control.

          Also worth pointing out that the sections (because it’s far from every piece of state highway) where the limit is being dropped to 80 are mostly places where the average speeds were well under 100km/hr anyway. Around the Kaikoura coast for example. Sure the new limits whacks off some top speeds, but the amount of time that was reasonably spent at the top speed (by an average driver in an average car) was small.

        2. The only reason why those average speeds were so low is because nobody could get past slow trucks so everyone was forced to go the slower speed.
          If trucks were removed from the equation then most cars would be much closer to 100km/h even on a lot if winding highways.
          This is just another (as Mark Twain put it) “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” trick that WK are trying to pull on everyone. In other words everyone is already going slowly (involuntarily) so let’s just make that the new limit instead of fixing the issue.
          I’d further add that most modern cars with even your typical below average driver can safely take a 75km/h corner at close to if not 100km/h. Those speed recommendations are for trucks.

    3. Despite the title, most “State Highways” have bugger all traffic on them (i.e. less than 5000 vehs/day, many less than 2000 vpd) – not surprisingly it’s pretty hard to cost-justify adding a wider shoulder to all of these (esp. given the terrain of many of them), let alone other safety measures like realignments or passing lanes. That’s why so much of the road network (SH and local) is set to have lower speed limits – it’s by far the most cost-effective safety measure around.
      I’m struggling with the overtaking argument too: if you’ve just lowered the speed limit from 100k to 80k, tell me why you are overtaking a truck doing about 80k already? I hear lots of theories about how lower speeds will create impatience and more crashes, but most people don’t act like that, and any crashes that do happen will still be at lower speeds than before = lesser consequences

      1. Because trucks don’t and can’t maintain a constant 80km/h – not even close. They’re lucky to go 50km/h up a hill. They slow for corners (that cars don’t need to) and often slow before going down hills too. The only places where it is usually safe to pass them are the same places where they can manage to go 80km/h.

        1. It’d be better spending the money on the railways and getting the trucks off the road. They’re involved in a disproportionate number of road deaths anyway and add to carbon emissions. If trucks paid for thier share of road damage and if past governments hadn’t subsidised roads and expected railways to make a profit, the truck problem would be much less.

        2. Of course. With our population having doubled since the majority of State Highways were built, there is still a need to fix/upgrade many of them. There aren’t many that don’t have suitable flat land alongside at least every 10km for a small passing lanes

  9. The lack of median barriers is very disappointing. We rely far too much on drivers not making mistakes in this country. Rule #1 of life-critical safety engineering is “no single point of failure”. If all we rely on is a driver then we have a single point of failure.

    Bringing speed down might convert some fatalities to severe injuries, but we wouldn’t even have the severe injuries if there was some physical barrier.

  10. Dr Paul Reynolds has been appointed new chair or Waka Kotahi.
    Dr Reynolds will replace Sir Brian as Chair from 1 February 2023
    “Dr Reynolds is an experienced Chair and public sector leader, as well as an excellent strategist. His appointment strengthens the Board’s regulatory and environmental capabilities, as well as offering an additional perspective of the specific transport challenges experienced in regional New Zealand. As Chair, he will work collaboratively with transport and Treaty partners to solve problems and explore new opportunities.

    “I am confident Dr Reynolds has the right skills to lead the Board for the next three years and am excited to work with him.”

    1. Interesting appointment, when compared to the predecessor.

      Roche had a very “commercial” background, whereas Reynolds looks to have a background solely around policy and, interestingly, of late a focus on land and the environment.

  11. Yes we need better roads and newer cars with better safety features but I’m still in the camp that says it’s mostly that we are crappy, over confident, over aggressive, easily distracted drivers and are much more to blame for the toll than officials or the police. I still agree with an engineer I worked with back in LTSA days who reckoned the best safety feature we could add to cars in Aotearoa would be a large spike jutting out from the steering wheel that grows longer the faster you go. Drivers would pay a lot more attention to staying safe than they do at the moment.

    1. If your system that you expect the public to use cant handle accidents / stuff ups without killing people then you’ve done it wrong.

      The big spike is funny, but this is equally the reason that removing tall roadside obstacles is undesirable, people just drive faster and it’s back to square one. The key to to have high perceived danger, but low actual danger. I find the new median rope barriers and side barriers do this nicely. You feel quite hemmed in and you’d wreck your paint if you lost concentration. Add in some big trees a little behind the barrier and most behave quite nicely.

    2. Translex, it’s the other way around. Infrastructure, regulations, operations, communications and enforcement dictate the quality of driving.

  12. Yes instead of doing practical things like improving roads or working on reducing driver inattention, they waste everyone’s time reducing speed limits. This country and its transportation system truly is in terrible hands.

    1. If you check the top-performing countries the world over for road safety, a big part of what they do is to have lower speed limits for undivided rural roads and local urban streets. And in the (very few) sections of road in NZ where we have already done that to date, we see notable drops in casualty numbers, typically at least 30 percent.
      We have a small fraction of our 90,000+km of roads that have enough traffic to even warrant spending large amounts of money on realignments, barriers, grade separation, etc. And the Road to Zero programme already has a plan to spend about $5 billion doing just that (a pity about its slow delivery). But that all takes time to plan/design/construct, even with the best will in the world. For most roads, by far the quickest and most cost-effective thing you can do is to just lower their speed limit.

      1. A lot of people don’t understand that on like for like infrastructure New Zealand’s speed limits are currently a good bit higher than overseas.

        They just know about headline speeds on a small portion of a countrys expressways like the autobahn.

    2. “This country and its transportation system truly is in terrible hands.”

      If you think roads are bad, wait till you hear about PT and the active modes….

  13. “if the safety issue is resolved, it removes most of the justification for those motorways”, implies motorways are safe. shows 3 serious and 1 fatal crash on the 110kph section of the Waikato Expressway in 2022. That doesn’t seem to me to indicate a safe road. Are motorways really safer?

        1. Along the parallel stretch of SH1 to where the death occurred in 2022 there were fatal crashes in 2003 (2), 2004, 2005, 2007, 2009 (2), 2011 (2), 2014, 2015 and 2021.

        2. Thanks for those facts, John Lawson. There are far too many unsubstantiated assertions being made here by people claiming to be realists.

          That NZTA Maphub link is a usefuls source.

  14. One of the most cost effective tools would be an video reporting portal like in the UK, where people with dashcams, helmet cams, cellphone videos can submit videos of terrible driving that will then be prosecuted.

    We all know NZers are awful drivers, but one reason is because they know there is a 0% chance of being caught by traffic policing, red light jumping around Auckland being the most blatant example

    You’d only need 5-10 civilian staff and some cloud storage to have an effect on driving standards multiple times that of the actual traffic police on the roads

    1. Note of caution, video could become a requirement to getting any kind of action against bad drivers: no video, no crime. Especially an issue where one party is less likely to be filming and more likely to be KSI: pedestrians, cyclists and particularly kids.

  15. Let’s first enforce all existing traffic regulations, e.g., Speed limits, mobile phone and other distractions, red and range light running, drug and alcohol affected drivers plus many more.
    Then do a review.

  16. Those other countries you quote with lower death tolls:
    1) Much more difficult to obtain a driving licence, a far more costly
    2) Have intercity rail services and/or long distance coach services.

    Labour/Greens has had 6 years to deliver one, new long distance passenger rail service and have achieved exactly nothing except for a talk feast and aspirational dribble.

    Nats / Act won’t help either. It shows that the 4 main parties are completely useless – proof is in the pudding.

  17. Our toll is terrible and every stop should be pulled to reduce it. Making our targets easily achievable is no way to do this (especially when we have had that figure before).

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