01 June 2011

NZ roads: safest they've been since 1973

Online polls conducted by newspapers are, generally speaking, complete piffle. Ones with political topics are easy for party activists to skew with targeted voting campaigns, and the selection of the poll options for most topics usually seems to either reflect the narrow perspectives of the question-setter or a need to beat up a story, rather than a desire to accurately gauge and reflect actual public opinions. 

This came to mind when I skimmed over this morning's Herald poll, which poses the question 'To reduce New Zealand's appalling road toll we need to...'  Currently the poll results for the four options, after 10,400 responses, are:

Reduce speed limits
Improve our roads
Improve driver education
Get more cops on the road

These are all viable policy approaches to reducing the road toll, certainly. Under the artificial proviso that I'm only allowed to choose one option instead of a mix of several, I would probably go along with the majority of respondents and opt for improving driver education too. Clive Matthew-Wilson, editor of the Dog & Lemon motoring guide, agrees that driver education is a problem. In 2008 he said: 'The New Zealand system makes the assumption that public transport doesn't exist and that education is not that important and that it's ok to have third world roads. No wonder so many people get killed'. I think New Zealand drivers would benefit from compulsory defensive driving refresher courses every five to ten years, to shake people out of the bad habits they get into, particularly as our roads have become far more crowded in recent years; many New Zealanders passed relatively easy tests and learned to drive when the population was a lot smaller, and I believe this has an effect on their approach to driving. 

But before we flail for simplistic solutions to a very real problem, it's important to look at the initial premise, which simply isn't valid. Certainly, for the families and friends of people who die or who are seriously injured in road accidents, the effects of the road toll are calamitous, and every sympathy must go out to them. But the fact remains that while there is always room for improvement, New Zealand's road toll has been steadily declining since it peaked at 843 deaths in 1973. This is despite significant increases in both the national population (1973: 2.99m; 2008: 4.23m) and the number of motor vehicles on the roads since that time. (n.b. I can't track down the underlying historical road toll numbers on the MoT website, despite it saying that it has all the figures back to 1950).

While there is every reason to take strong measures to address the ongoing problem of New Zealand's road toll, it is daft to call it 'appalling' when it has demonstrably been in a steady decline for more than a generation, despite an increasing population and greater numbers of vehicles on the roads. Rather than throwing exaggerated rhetoric around, we should be congratulating ourselves that our policy approach appears to be working, and continue to refine our approach to road safety to keep the numbers of road deaths going in the right direction.    
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