Driving tests

How to fix the road toll

Why do successive governments make the wrong decisions on reducing road deaths?

Governments cannot make the right decisions on reducing our road toll because the right decisions are not politically palatable. As a government can be voted out after 3 years in power, they want to keep their chances of being reelected as high as possible. Therefore they:

  • import strategies from overseas which have mixed results that are frequently promoted by commercial enterprises masquerading as charities, forums and advisory councils that are funded by, or have boards laden with senior management from, large companies with a vested interest in infrastructure developments
  • avoid decisions that would cause people to have to do something (people generally want a solution without them actually having to do something themselves)

Governments also move at a glacial pace. Case in point: our letter to Julie-Anne Genter took over 4 months to get a response.

Tough decisions need to be made in order to make a real difference and they need to be made quickly, tested and either adopted or discarded. This could only happen if the road toll was a bipartisan issue.

Who works in road safety in New Zealand?

There are a number of agencies and organisations. Some form into partnerships for specific projects, such as Safer Journeys. Here are a few:

  • DT Driver Training – we have thousands of drivers in hundreds of companies using our online training to become better drivers. There are other driver training companies, too, and all of us are in the business to improve driver safety.
  • NZ Transport Agency – as the agency responsible for our roads they have a lot of things to think about from driver licencing to tourist signage. They don’t have enough people or resources to get things done quickly.
  • ACC – they run initiatives such as Ride Forever that targets motorcycle safety
  • NZ Police – the police do a great job of targetting some of the worst drivers in New Zealand, but they also have to deal with crime on a broader level, they can’t be everywhere at the same time and they are given fairly blunt tools such as speeding tickets.
  • Regional councils and initiatives – many regional councils have a road safety coordinator responsible for local initiatives in road safety, for example, Road Safe Hawkes Bay.
  • Driving instructors – their job is to ensure new drivers are competent enough to pass the theory and practical tests and they also carry out assessments for drivers at work.
  • Universities and researchers – there are a number of programmes in universities around the country, such as the Transport Research Group at the University of Waikato.

There are other organisations that dabble in road safety as part of a broader strategy to sell insurance or other products, and a couple of people who push their own agenda under the guise of road safety.

What can be done to reduce road deaths?

Most of the following strategies and ideas can be achieved for less than the budget that is currently allocated to road safety initiatives.

1. Education and testing

We consistently look at driver education as something that only happens when you are young. This is wrong. The road rules change periodically. People forget. People develop bad habits. The only time we would have to refresh our knowledge is if we are forced to by police for breaking enough laws (e.g. resitting your licence) or we want to get a different class of licence.

Education should be periodic for all drivers. For example, a 10-yearly theory test could be delivered online for a negligible cost and could be tied to licence renewal. Sure, some people will cheat, but this is about getting to the masses, not addressing the types of people who will go to all lengths to cheat. If the masses drive more safely, we’ll all be safer because they will drive defensively and courteously. This will have the knock-on effect of setting an example for younger drivers who, unfortunately, see a lot of bad driving then adopt those habits.

As for young people, we have a graduated driver licencing system which encourages drivers through a process of upskilling. However, there are no mandatory lessons with a professional instructor. We would introduce a minimum of 5 lessons with a qualified driving instructor before you are allowed to take the restricted test and another two refresher lessons before you are allowed to take your full licence test. This helps break cycles of bad habits passed down from parents to children.

2. Licence entitlement by overseas drivers

If you arrive in New Zealand from one of 24 countries you can swap your overseas car or motorbike driver licence for a New Zealand one without taking any kind of theory or practical test. As we are a nation of immigrants this means thousands of new drivers every year who are allowed to drive in New Zealand indefinitely without us ensuring they know the road rules.

Our suggestions are:

  • If you have a licence from a country that drives on the left and speaks English (Australia, UK, South Africa), you take a theory test
  • If you have a licence from any other country, you take both a theory and practical test.

3. Tourists and visitors

There’s no reason to give a 12-month free pass to people with overseas licences, or to reset that counter every time they leave the country. This should be set to a maximum of 6 months accumulated time in New Zealand in any 5-year period, after which you need to take a theory test. If you are in New Zealand any longer than 6 months, you’re not on holiday, you’re living here.

Rental vehicle agencies should be compelled to recommend a theory test and track user’s results (disclosure: we provide this service to some rental vehicle agencies)

4. Compulsory third-party insurance

Yes, there are arguments for and against this but it works fine in the UK and means that everyone is covered at least for the damage they do to another person’s property. As we have technology to read licence plates and query databases, we could very quickly see if a vehicle is uninsured. This will have some negative consequences of pushing some people out of vehicles who don’t have access to public transport, but it could also increase public transport patronage in urban areas, reducing congestion.

5. Improving roads

Some roads do need median barriers and some roads need lower speed limits. But bear in mind that the more you derisk driving, the lower the overall driving skills will become.

Many deaths are motorcyclists who have a crash as a result of poor road surfaces in New Zealand. We need to keep on top of tar bleed, gravel on corners and other dangerous scenarios for motorcyclists.

6. Mandating new technology

All new light vehicles imported into New Zealand must have autonomous emergency braking by 2020, and by 2022 all second-hand vehicles must have AEB. Yes, this means that second-hand cars will take a jump in price, but this also happened when we enforced frontal impact standards.

All new light vehicles imported into New Zealand must have a minimum 5-star ANCAP crash test rating by 2020. It would be good to extend this to secondhand vehicles, too, especially as a 5-star rating from 2010 is worse than a 5-star rating from 2018.

7. Change the narrative

Let’s stop creating scapegoats. Roads are not dangerous; promoting this implies there is reduced responsibility of drivers for preventing crashes. It’s the same argument gun lobbyists have around semi-automatic weapons.

Speed itself is not dangerous, but inappropriate speed is dangerous.

8. Cycle networks

To make cycling as appealing as possible cyclists need safe, separated networks that make it extremely quick for them to get around the city unhindered and keeps them away from other vehicles as much as possible. Electric bikes should be further encouraged. The more people on bikes, the less traffic there is and it will flow more freely. Keeping cyclists away from cars in visually cluttered city environments is common sense.

9. Public transport

Light rail down Dominion Road is a white elephant. Rapid transit electric buses that service major routes every 10 minutes are where it’s at in cities and towns, augmented by a fast rail network that services major hubs like Pukekohe. Creating more park and ride schemes will encourage rural drivers to go to a transport hub then take public transport into cities and large towns.

10. More variable speed limits

While drivers should be able to make informed decisions about what speed is safe, it’s not always possible or easy. Variable speed limits with realistic and palatable changes will achieve more traction. When traffic is light, how many people stick to 80km/h on the Northwestern Motorway heading to and from the Waterview Tunnel? Not many. However, we should avoid signage clutter.

11. Police focus

Remove some of the focus from speed and instead channel it into targeting people for inconsiderate and annoying driving, not using correct indication, holding drivers up, lane hogging, etc. This will send the message that in order to retain the right to drive in New Zealand you must have a high level of driver ability, not just that you should keep below the speed limit.

12. Passing lane reminders

Some of the most dangerous overtaking happens on passing lanes when people speed up (usually inadvertently) and that prevents other people from overtaking them. A sign at the beginning of the passing lane reminding drivers to let others pass might help.

A ‘safe system’ or a vision of zero deaths?

There is a vision of zero road deaths – this idea comes from Sweden and is different to our current ‘safe system’ thinking. It’s a good vision to have – good for news stories and PR, making people enthusiastic and placating those who have lost loved ones – but it’s unrealistic. A perfectly safe system is one where it’s impossible to have a fatality, but unfortunately evolution proves time and again that if you make a system idiot-proof, a better idiot emerges from the primordial soup. While we have pedestrians, cyclists and fallible humans controlling large chunks of metal, there will always be serious injury and deaths on our roads. All we can do is strive for damage limitation, something that gradually improves due to technology.

Having said that, Sweden has roughly halved its road toll since 1997 while New Zealand hasn’t, but there are a number of factors that are rarely mentioned by politicians when considering this. For example, the average age of a passenger car in Sweden is under 7 years old, but in New Zealand it’s more than twice that. Perhaps we could simply halve our road toll by mandating vehicles of a certain age are scrapped?

The nature of New Zealand’s roads means that unless we bring all speeds down to walking pace with a man carrying a red flag walking in front of the vehicle, we will have people who accidentally self-select themselves out of existence. Until we have no cellphones to distract us, pedestrians will still step out in front of vehicles without looking (they even did that before cellphones). Cyclists will occasionally hit a pothole and fall off. People will run out of road and their old cars will not have sufficient crumple zones to save them. A safe system and zero vision are both utopian, but personal responsibility has to be a bigger focus.

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Darren is a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists and the NZ Motoring Writers' Guild

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