A sobering road toll

The increased road toll for 2012 is disappointing given the raft of safety measures that have recently come into force - and the sobering fact most fatal crashes are clearly avoidable.

The provisional toll for 2012 is 307, an increase of 23 on the 2011 figure of 284. In recent years the road toll has been steadily declining and is a world away from the 843 deaths of 1973. This year's figure, while up, is still the second lowest in 60 years. In 2010 it was 375 and in 2009 it was 385.

Factors for last year's figures included an increase in the number of crashes with multiple fatalities and the number of motorcyclist fatalities. Provisional data indicated alcohol was a factor in 31% of fatal crashes and speed was a factor in 25% of fatals.

It is easy to understand the frustration of the police and other emergency service workers who clean up the mess, often as a result of the usual suspects: ''It's getting into cars with drunken drivers, it's drinking and driving themselves, it's failing to wear seat belts and it's driving too quickly, all the same things coming time and time again,'' road policing national manager Superintendent Carey Griffiths said.

Police and the Government, through its Safer Journeys road safety strategy, have implemented various measures aimed at reducing risks on the road, particularly around young drivers. Measures in the Land Transport (Road Safety and Other Matters) Amendment Act 2011 have included a zero alcohol limit for under-20s, raising the driving age to 16, and introducing a tougher restricted licence test. And some of those initiatives are paying off, with a record low for fatalities in the 15-24 age group - 65 in 2012 compared with 82 in 2011.

Other new measures have included a ban on cellphone use while driving, changes to give-way rules, the introduction of alcohol interlocks as a sentencing option for the courts and higher penalties for dangerous driving.

But the safety measures can only be successful if they are adhered to. Associate Minister of Transport Simon Bridges rightly says ''every road user - drivers, riders, passengers or pedestrians - needs to play a part'' in reducing the road toll.

While some New Zealand roads are undeniably more demanding, because they lack median barriers, and they are often hilly, narrow and winding, single-lane and unsealed, there is clearly still complacency among many drivers who don't take into account our roads, the weather conditions, other road users, the road rules and are blase about speed and alcohol.

And it is clear our roads are also problematic for many foreign drivers, who were involved in more than 400 crashes - including 15 fatal events , 7% of the total number of fatals - on New Zealand roads last year. Failure to keep left, poor handling and fatigue were the leading causes of those fatal crashes.

And foreigners also featured in last year's multiple fatalities - three Boston University students died when their van rolled near the Tongariro crossing in May and four Argentine skifield workers died in a head-on crash in the central North Island in July. Other multiple-victim crashes included the Hawkes Bay crash in July in which four farmhands died and the Whakamaru crash in December in which a family of five died. In such crashes, whole groups of family and friends can be lost in one horrific moment.

It is clear a moment's inattention or a bad decision can cause a lifetime's pain. Those who have lost family or friends to drink-drivers or dangerous drivers have to live not only with their grief but with the knowledge their loved one died needlessly.

Those who have been responsible for the deaths of others must live with that. Any rise in the road toll - no matter how small - is a move in the wrong direction, when such pain and heartbreak are avoidable. Every driver should examine their consciences, their attitudes and their actions on the road - and adjust them if necessary.

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