Clive Matthew-Wilson: Technology to thank for driving down road toll

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

For 50 years before airbags and modern highways, there were policemen patrolling roads and signs imploring safe driving. The road toll kept climbing.

In the late 1980s, the road toll began to fall. What caused this fall? Certainly not any change in tactics by the road safety authorities.

The biggest factor in the lowering road toll was simply improved technology. In the 1950s, accidents at speeds of 30km/h were often fatal: there were no seatbelts, so people flew out of cars during accidents. Few roads had barriers, so if you skidded on a bend, your car could fall off a cliff.

In the 1980s, the Auckland Harbour Bridge used to suffer one serious road accident every week. After a concrete barrier was installed down the middle, the serious accidents stopped immediately. There wasn't one less hoon or drunk driver, yet the accidents stopped because the road was changed in a way that prevented mistakes from becoming fatalities.

Sadly, the public has been hypnotised into thinking that the road toll is caused by ordinary people speeding and that a combination of a tough anti-speeding campaign and road safety advertising has lowered the road toll. This is nonsense.

Firstly, 80 per cent of road deaths occur below the speed limit.

A 2009 AA summary of 300 fatal crashes stated: "Exceeding speed limits isn't a major issue. Police surveying has found that even the top 15 per cent of open-road speeders average under 110km/h."

The report added: "It is apparent that [many road fatalities] were caused by people who don't care about any kind of rules. These are men who speed, drink, don't wear safety belts, have no valid licence or WoF - who are basically renegades. They usually end up wrapped around a tree, but they can also overtake across a yellow line and take out other motorists as well."

The other great myth is that road safety advertising is behind a drop in the road toll.

The American Insurance Institute for Highway Safety did a major study of the effectiveness of road safety advertising, examining dozens of campaigns over decades, and concluded that advertising "has no effect, or only a very limited effect, on habits like staying within speed limits, heeding stop signs and using safety belts".

The New Zealand Government looks to the lowering road toll as proof that road safety advertising works. This is the worst kind of pseudo-science. It's like saying: "I sprayed air freshener and the road toll dropped, therefore the air freshener caused the road toll to fall."

One major study that supports the Government's stance was paid for by the Government and was subsequently savaged by peer review.

So why doesn't road safety advertising work? The answer is quite simple: the highest risk groups, which are male criminals, together with the very young, the very old and the very impaired, are largely blind to road safety messages. They all think they're driving okay.

Advertising is a great way of persuading people to do what they wanted to do anyway, such as eat hamburgers.

However, ads telling people not to eat hamburgers don't usually work, except with those who have already decided to live a healthy lifestyle. Most fast food junkies know that eating lots of burgers will make them fat, unhealthy and eventually kill them, but they do it anyway.

Enforcement plays a role in the road toll, but not nearly as big a role as people think. Enforcement only works with a co-operative population. The utter failure of the marijuana laws shows that enforcement, by itself, cannot change peoples' ways.

Enforcement of seatbelt and anti-drink driving laws has clearly had some effect. However, most of the change in people's drinking and driving behaviour has been caused by major changes in social attitudes towards risk-taking.

The road toll has been falling steadily for decades, as cars and roads become safer. The confused old people, the out-of-control teenagers and drunk drivers continue to do what they've always done. We can try to rein them in with appropriate enforcement, but the police can't be everywhere at once. The difference between the 1950s and now is that poor driver behaviour no longer has to end in tragedy.

The battle is not over. The recent tragic death of three foreign students at Turangi would probably not have occurred if the vehicle had been fitted with electronic stability control and if the road had been fitted with rumble strips.

The money wasted on road safety advertisements and pointless enforcement would be better spent on technology that has been proven to save lives.

Clive Matthew-Wilsonis editor of the car review website and has been an active road safety campaigner for 15 years.

- NZ Herald

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