Saturday, December 31, 2011

Holiday Road Toll

Read the Herald, the Dom, Stuff, wherever - all the news we ever get over our holidays are news of every single crash and road safety. First, it starts with grave concerns from the Police over expectations the roads will get busy over the holiday busy, then a message from the police warning everyone they're cracking down on speeding and drink driving, then the news pours in of every crash on every road, and then its followed up by debate and outrage.

Are Kiwis shit drivers? Do we speed like idiots? Why does it seem we all get on the piss before driving? Is it Aucklanders leaving Auckland the main problem? Whatever the answer to our road safety blunders is, it's the million-dollar question we all want the answer to. To add perspective, our road toll is high for a developed country, with fatalities twice as likely per capita than Germany; though not high by world standards. With a situation as complicated as this, it's probably a variety of factors. Without a lot of time, a team of crack researchers, a million dollar inquiry budget, and an abundant supply of Pepsi - I can't find out for sure. But we'll have a crack at a few hypotheses.

The Car
New Zealand has an extremely high car ownership rate, often the highest per capita in the world depending on studies, with 3226614 private vehicles at the 2006 census. Our car fleet is almost entirely used Japanese imports (95% of cars in 2006), and the median age of our vehicles was 12 years old. Since most people own an old pre-owned Jap reject, people are probably less likely to have a great deal of respect for their vehicles. Not to say people don't love their cars, but more that people would be much more cautious driving a 2011 dealer-new Lamborghini than a 1996 Toyota Corolla. 

Our standards of road worthiness are high, which says our cars are in decent condition; but a fleet of older cars says their safety features are outdated, and their older engines would need more aggressive driving to keep up on the roads.

The Road
As an urban planning student, I can testify to heaps of roads in New Zealand being designed really really shit. Not just Auckland having crippling transport issues, but our state highway network having many dangerous stretches and areas, with most of our highways simply being retrofitted rural roads. Highways have evolved over time, and their designs and safety features are outdated and often unsuitable for their current use as high-speed cross-country connections. The road leading South of Auckland is built on the old Great South Road, built 150 years ago as a military service route in the New Zealand Wars. The road to the bach in the Coromandel was built on old goldminers' tracks from a similar era. The corners and stretches on these roads were never designed to handle the traffic volumes and speeds required today. The Manawatu Gorge is another example of a road that is unsafe by design, and now it's out - we're forced to drive over the even more unsafe Saddle Road where I got stuck behind someone so scared they were doing 35km/h the whole road.

We have very few dual carriages outside of Auckland and Wellington, which are inherently safer roads. Only driving from Auckland to Hamilton will you spend a significant distance of an inter city journey on a dual carriageway. Western Europe and much of the United States, even Malaysia has most cities connected by dual carriageways.

The Driver
Our driving age has been lower than many other countries for a long time, but it's foolish to think it's young drivers doing all the damage. They're a soft target in our road safety concerns, and there's a lot of sentiment towards them that distracts people from everyone else's driving - and I don't mean old granny drivers, Asian drivers, or woman drivers. Our driver licensing is reasonably lax, especially considering older drivers who went though a far more lenient driving test system. Licenses are not often renewed, and skills are not often retested. Laziness and 'knowing what you'll get away with' on our roads is pretty bad, most of the people that annoy me on roads are those older than me. 

Road safety is worse outside of the cities, implying that road rage is not a major issue. Since most drivers doing the long haul in the holiday period are parents - sober, responsible, experienced adults - it seems the spike in car crashes is not caused by the usual road baddies of speeding young boyracers on their restricted license who've been drinking beer in their illegally lowered Nissan Skylines. 

The Journey
New Zealand, as much as we say is a small country, is still 5 hours driving from Hastings to Auckland, 3 hours from Napier to Gisborne, and the travel times get longer in the larger and more sparsely populated South Island. When we pack up the car and head out, the journey distance is often long, through what becomes montonous farm scenery on winding rural roads. No wonder that drivers get tired on these journeys, or at least tired of the passengers with them, especially as these are usually parents being stuck in the car with the kids for 2-8 hours in a day. 

Driving to the conditions is important too. New Zealand doesn't have terribly wild or extreme weather, as much as we keep saying we do, but it is very changeable. Driving from Auckland to Wellington for example will see you change through several climate zones and dozens of weather conditions in a 9 hour trip. These weather conditions, especially precipitation can be dangerous, or even sunstrike from low sun at its rise and set; can be hazardous to driving. Being cooped up inside a car all day with the air conditioning and the radio can make a driver oblivious to the conditions outside.

While there's no definitive answer, our unique cars, use of cars, and ways of driving cars on our very unique roads gives us our special place for having an unusually high road toll for a developed country. Our car fleet and road network are unusual for a developed country too, and a variety of factors contribute to our dismal record. Without knowing more specifically the causes behind so many car crashes, it's hard to pick where we should try to fix it. Road safety upgrades occur all the time, but their high price tag often means they're too little too late, such as the billion-dollar Puhoi-Wellsford highway where to government plans to completely rebuild the road. There's no need for pessimism though, there are surely solutions to make our roads safer, but it will require a great deal of strategy from planners, politicians, and engineers.

* Image above a parody of the NZ Herald website front page, made myself. Information for this post derived from Wikipedia - Transport in New Zealand.


  1. Its the roads stupid !!!

    Roads in NZ are totally rubbish,

    Drivers in NZ if they are going from say Wellington to Hastings / Hastings Auckland will spend hours on narrow single lane roads hobbled to a 100km speed limit, and typically stuck behind a truck / bus/ caravan doing significantly less than that leading to frustration and the inevitable overtaking manouevre into opposing traffic possibly in an overloaded and / or underpowered vehicle, result = tragedy

    Motorways are the best way to move vehicles long distances quickly and safely , proven. Germany, as with Europe, UK and the States have extensive motorways and it shows in the traffic figures.

    NZ unfortunately has a large land mass to population so the cost of the infratructure will be disproportionate but unless this is addressed the problem will remain.

    Yes cars and driving standards are factors but in my view are the 20 of the 80 / 20.


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