Wednesday, 4 January 2017


Road safety campaign fails as death rate rises in New Zealand

Highway patrol police are at a loss to understand why their road safety messages have fallen on deaf ears, thereby allowing a substantial rise in road fatalities in 2016. They are particularly concerned at the increase in deaths during the holiday period which ended today.

The holiday period ended with 19 road deaths, up more than 50% on the same period last year. The toll for 2016 is 330 deaths, up slightly on the previous year, but the trend appeared to accelerate in the final months of the year, indicating the likelihood of an even higher toll for 2017. By world standards, New Zealand with a population of 4.5 million, is not doing very well on its roads.

The all-time record number of road fatalities in New Zealand was 843 in 1973. After 1973, the trend has been generally downwards, but there have been factors other than good driving habits to account for the trend. Seat belts became law after 1973 and that had an immediate effect on the annual toll. Roading improvements played a smaller part in the post 1973 trend. More awareness of the dangers of drinking and driving also played a part. But the single greatest factor was the part played by imported used vehicles, mostly from Japan. The used imports were built to higher safety standards and had many features to make driving easier and therefore safer. They also replaced many locally assembled vehicles that were years beyond their safe lifetime.

While vehicles and roads have become safer, drivers have not, despite stricter legislation and ramped up enforcement. Many drivers habitually ignore what they consider minor laws, like stop signs, speed limits, passing and merging rules, following distances, and licence conditions. But ignoring ‘minor rules’ can quickly lead to an attitude where major rules can be ignored too. A lack of self-discipline on the smaller things often leads to a total disregard of many laws and a lowering of general standards of behaviour.

For many drivers, driving a vehicle that does not meet road worthiness requirements is often seen as nothing significant, and such a driver may also regard the requirement to have a current driver licence as not important either. It then becomes only a short step from there to driving drunk at excessive speed. Drivers in this category, I believe, should be treated as criminally insane and there needs to be a system in place to make it impossible for them to drive any vehicle. More on that later.

This writer and long-time professional driver believes it is time for police, road safety campaigners and politicians to return to the drawing board and draft an entirely new strategy. Much of what has gone before should be thrown out and replaced with far-sighted new plans. They must accept that the old ways have failed tragically, and that they need a new plan that will bring the public on board.

Except for the criminal driver mentioned above, the emphasis must change from stick to carrot. Punishment, where possible, must be replaced with education; demerits should be replaced with rewards. Fines, where fines are unavoidable, should be income-related with the fines revenue going to charities or foreign aid to dispel the misconception that fines are merely revenue gathering and have nothing to do with road safety.

Based on eLogbook, GPS tracking and remote disabling technology used by vehicle finance companies, a new technology could be developed to include a smart-card driver licence. Use of the new integrated system could be made mandatory for all new drivers, drivers with convictions and commercial drivers. The smart card could replace, or be additional to, the traditional ignition key, meaning that the engine would only start for a current licence held by a person authorised to drive the particular vehicle. The smart-card driver licence would lead to fewer accidents and insurance claims, and would be beneficial to all road users. Remote disabling would give police a safe and effective alternative to dangerous pursuits. As a bonus, the GPS component could assist in solving crime involving motor vehicles.

All drivers should be subject to the same driving time limitations. The driving time and rest period records, whether paper or electronic, that currently apply to some commercial drivers, should apply to all drivers, professional and amateur.

The current system of roadside checks for vehicle compliance and breath testing could be extended to include driver re-testing. Drivers failing a brief oral test of traffic law could be immediately required to submit to a more extensive test, and in the event of another failure, they could be required to undergo a full driver assessment, refresher course and licence test within a specified time. For most infringements, this system would work better than instant fines or a court appearance.

Split speed limits (different limits for different classes of vehicles) have failed to make driving safer for anyone. The assumption has been that heavy vehicles should have a lower speed limit because they take longer to stop in an emergency. But that assumption is wrong, except at very low speeds when a heavy vehicle may have a lag time between acceleration and braking. At highway speeds, heavy vehicles will often stop short of cars in a nose-to-tail pile up. This is because the heavy driver has a better view ahead, is often more experienced and alert than other drivers, and has a long wheel base which makes it easier to retain directional control under maximum braking. Many American states that once had split speed limits have now changed to uniform limits as the safer option. It is always safer to go with the flow.

Passing lanes on many New Zealand highways are inherently unsafe. The current policy of one kilometre long passing lanes is the problem. For many drivers, a kilometre is long enough to start a race, but not long enough to safely finish the race. It would be better to have passing lanes at least five kilometres long, even if that means fewer such lanes.

Road markings and signage are sadly deficient on most New Zealand roads. No passing lines are often misleading and just plain inappropriate. When I observe no passing lines, I often wonder if the person(s) making the decisions about where to put the paint, has ever driven on a road with traffic coming the other.

Road crash investigation is another area requiring a new approach. The motive for investigation appears to be to find fault and to prosecute. The objective should be to find the primary and contributory causes so that the chances of a similar accident in the future can be reduced or even eliminated. During investigation, a closer look at drivers is a must; what have they been doing in the hours leading up to the accident? How much driving experience have they have got in total and with the vehicle involved? How many previous accidents and/or infringements have they got? Did they learn to drive with a driving school and a professional driver, or did they learn from friends or family? These should be key questions for investigators. However, many of these questions will remain unanswered unless drivers are required to record their driving activities and experience, the way pilots are required to record their flying.

In the opening comments, mention was made of moving the emphasis from stick to carrot. We know that the payment of fines fall into two categories: some fines are paid as simply as buying a newspaper, and the offender keeps on offending. The fine is nothing. The second category has a backlog of unpaid fines because he/she cannot afford to pay any of them, and once again that offender, with nothing to lose, keeps on offending. Demerit points are another part of the stick that needs to go. Demerits are no deterrent to people who only drive an hour or two at weekends, and are unfair to professional drivers who face a greater range of demerit offences and drive on average five times the distance that average amateur drivers do. When a professional reach 100 demerit points he not only loses his licence but also his income. Clearly, fines and demerits don’t work as well as we would like.

So, here's the carrot. Every driver licence could carry a classification from say F to A with F being applied to the first full licence issued. As drivers gain experience, without any  infringements or avoidable accidents, their licence could be upgraded to a higher class. A class A for example could apply to any driver who completes a million kilometres with no avoidable accidents or infringements – a true professional. Drivers would have to be constantly vigilant to avoid downgrading. This system would have benefits for professional drivers seeking employment and others required to drive a company vehicle as part of their work. Rental and insurance companies would look favourably on highly graded drivers. Such a system would be a real incentive for drivers to drive by the book with all the care and attention that driving calls for.

But you say, don’t worry about that, within five years manually-driven cars will be a thing of the past. Well, no. There will always be manually-driven cars. In all probability, it will be more than thirty years before fully automated cars outnumber others. Even the worst drivers will consider themselves safer than robots, so the motor vehicle, as we know it, is literally here for the long haul.

Meanwhile, the problems of road safety are not going to go away of their own accord. Only a concerted effort and some radical thinking are going to reduce the accident rate and save precious lives. The big question is, will the bureaucrats and politicians be brave enough and innovative enough to tackle it?