Sam Boyer is a police reporter for the NZ Herald.

Road toll heads for lowest in 60 years

Kiwi motorists urged to be patient and extra vigilant as they hit the roads heading into the holiday season

2013 could end with the fewest road deaths in more than 50 years, says national road policing manager Superintendent Carey Griffiths. Photo / Natalie Slade
2013 could end with the fewest road deaths in more than 50 years, says national road policing manager Superintendent Carey Griffiths. Photo / Natalie Slade

The road toll is set to be the lowest in more than 60 years if drivers pay attention and behave themselves on the roads over the Christmas period.

The 2013 road toll stood at 245 yesterday, on track for the lowest total since 1950. But with holidaymakers and the exodus of people travelling for Christmas the roads are set to get busy, and potentially fatal.

The Christmas and New Year holiday period which runs from 4pm on Christmas Eve to 6am on January 3 often brings a spike in deaths because of the number of cars on the road.

Police are enforcing a 4km/h speed tolerance over the whole of December and January in a bid to keep road deaths and trauma down.

Unless the final few days of the year are particularly calamitous, 2013 could end with the fewest road deaths in more than half a century, national road policing manager Superintendent Carey Griffiths said. "I am certainly hoping so. Barring a catastrophe, yes we should be on track.

"We want people to have a safe summer and look fondly at Christmas and New Year's as a great time, not a time for sadness about the loss of a loved one," he said. "This is about how New Zealanders drive. Driver behaviour, and the choices people make, that's a huge thing."

The road toll in 1950 was 232. The two lowest full years since were 272 in 1952 and 284 in 2011.

Per head of population, 2013 is on track to be the year with the fewest road fatalities. The highest recorded annual road toll was 843 in 1973.

Mr Griffiths said safer drivers, safer roads and signage, safer speed limits, safer vehicles and better medical care were helping to reduce the death toll. And the well-publicised lower speed tolerance, in place since the start of this month, also seemed to be making a difference, he said.

"Our road policing managers around the country (say) staff are struggling to find people at the high-end speeds, which is fantastic.

"People who have been stopped at the lower-level speeds say they're aware of (the lower speed threshold) and are apologetic ... Of course there are still those amongst us who travel too quickly, but they will stand out more clearly."

Associate Transport Minister Michael Woodhouse also urged motorists to travel safely.

"We are on track to record the lowest annual road toll in 60 years, but we're not there yet. We still have the busiest holiday period of the year to come so I urge everyone to be extra vigilant on the road this Christmas season," he said.

"Roads are busier at this time of year so it's important that we all drive fresh, drive to the conditions, and allow plenty of time to reach our destination safely."

The Automobile Association added to the safety message.

AA general manager of motoring affairs Mike Noon said slow drivers who speed up at passing lanes considered by many motorists to be a bane of the roads need to be more sensible and considerate.

"Slower drivers can help keep frustration levels down on the roads by making it easier for others to get past. Don't let your speed creep up when you get to a passing lane. Keep in the left lane and you may even want to slow down to help more faster drivers pass," he said.

And drivers who do find themselves behind a slow vehicle should be patient, he said. "Don't try a risky overtaking manoeuvre, the roads will be busy and chances are there will be oncoming traffic."

Grieving mum's plea: don't take risks

Five years ago on Christmas Eve, Jackie Geck lost her 17-year-old daughter Holley, whose car crashed and flipped into a ditch just 300m from their Pukekohe family home.

"We are just devastated still, it's like it happened yesterday. It's just dreadful. Our whole world was turned upside down."

The family still gets together for Christmas but the day will always be laden with sadness, with a trip to the scene of the crash part of the muted celebrations.

"We celebrate Christmas, but it's not like it used to be. I wouldn't like anyone to have the heartbreak we have had - it's indescribable until you've been through it."

About 8pm on December 24, 2008, Holley was visiting her brother 2km away.

Her death remained largely unexplained, Mrs Geck said. Holley was wearing a seatbelt, had not been drinking and was not using her cellphone.

"It was just a freak accident. They put it down to driver fatigue, but it wasn't that. Holley was all excited about the two most exciting days of the year, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

"At Christmas it's particularly hard because everyone is saying Merry Christmas, but they can't know."

The mother didn't want any other families to have to experience the heartache of losing a loved one over the holidays.

"If you could sit down and think what's the worst thing that could be - it's that.

"You just think, be sensible on the roads. It's just not worth it. People don't realise how vulnerable they are. They think they're like a PlayStation game, that they'll bounce back and be fine. It's just not like that in real life."

She said drivers owed it to their loved ones to obey the road rules.

"Don't take risks, don't drink and drive, don't talk on your phone ... leave with plenty of time to get where you're going. And just be aware of everyone else, think about what other people are doing."

- NZ Herald

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