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Solutions for New Zealand’s rising road toll appear hard to find.
While there is shock and outrage when a person dies, for example, in a house fire or hunting accident, the 300-plus deaths occurring annually on highways and roads throughout New Zealand often go unchallenged.
At times there seems almost an acceptance people will die on the roads.
Provisional figures show 326 people lost their lives on the country’s roads last year, a significant increase on the 319 killed in 2015.
The annual road toll has been steadily declining since the early 1990s. From the 1970s until then, the toll was regularly in the 600s or 700s and peaked at 843 in 1973. But a combination of road safety measures, newer cars and road improvements have significantly reduced those numbers.
The annual road toll now averages about 300 and was tracking steadily down. In 2013 (when 253 people died), it was the lowest since 1950. But since 2013 the road toll had been climbing noticeably each year and it is cause for worry among road safety authorities as they look for ways to address the rise.
New Zealand’s roads have always been challenging. Many lack median barriers, and they are often hilly, narrow and winding, single-lane and unsealed. But that puts the onus back on motorists to adjust to conditions and consider their own actions and attitudes on the roads.
There is an arrogance from some New Zealand drivers. They are outraged when ticketed by police for speeding, failing to stop at traffic lights or ignoring a give-way sign. It is simply revenue gathering by the police, they claim. But if that ticket makes a motorist think about their speed or how they they approach an intersection, then a fine is a small price to pay for an improvement in driving attitude.
The number of fatal accidents involving foreign drivers in recent years has also led to calls for greater testing of foreigners before they are allowed to drive on New Zealand’s roads.
While statistics show tourists are responsible for 6% of New Zealand’s crashes, those figures are up to five times higher in South Island tourists spots. In recent years there have been some horrific accidents in the region, in which tourist drivers have clearly been at fault. The death of Dunedin motorcyclist Riley Baker, killed in August when a Chinese tourist crossed a centre line near Shag Point and collided with him is just one example.
But the vast majority of fatal accidents are caused by New Zealanders and most are the result of poor decision-making or a lack of ability behind the wheel. Foreign drivers are often an easy target but, in reality, it is the gung-ho habits of local drivers that must urgently be addressed. Some accidents may be the result of an unforeseen and unpreventable event. However, road safety authorities maintain most road deaths are preventable. That means we must consider our own behaviour, question our skills behind the wheel, and make changes for the better.
New Zealand drivers have a reputation of being aggressive, impatient and complacent.
In the majority of fatal crashes one of the five basic causes is a factor: drink-driving, speeding, distraction, fatigue and not wearing a seatbelt.
The social and economic cost of New Zealand road deaths is estimated by the Ministry of Transport to be more than $3 billion a year. That cost is determined by a complicated formula which includes loss of life and life quality, loss of output due to temporary incapacitation, medical costs, legal costs and property damage costs. Whatever the formula, it is money that could be better spent elsewhere.
Associate Transport Minister Craig Foss said earlier last year the Government’s focus was on investment to make roads safer for everyone. That included a $600 million package of improvements for 90 high-risk sites in 14 regions, and the Visiting Drivers Project, in which agencies including the NZTA, police, councils and tourist industry representatives joined forces to improve safety.
But all the money in the world will not make roads safe if drivers are not prepared to play their part. Slow down, stay alert, drive sober and buckle up.