10 ways to make our roads safer

NZ has enjoyed a record fall in the road toll but road safety campaigners say there’s plenty of room for improvement. Andrew Laxon outlines 10 ideas which could save more lives.

Median barriers can save lives. Photo / APN
Median barriers can save lives. Photo / APN

1 Electronic stability control
Imagine if your car wouldn't let you skid off the road or lose control by over-correcting. That's what Transport Agency road safety director Ernst Zollner discovered when he tried out a new Mitsubishi with ESC, which is still relatively new in this part of the world. It uses computer controlled technology to apply individual brakes and help bring the car safely back on track, without the danger of fish-tailing. New cars in New Zealand will have to be fitted with ESC next year. It will then be phased in for used cars - 2016 for SUVs, 2018 for large cars and 2020 for all cars. Other safety features which save lives include curtain airbags on side windows, which can reduce driver deaths in side impact crashes by up to 40 per cent, and ABS braking.

2 Safety star ratings on every car sold
The Automobile Association wants these to be compulsory, so motorists can make the best possible choice. Motoring affairs manager Mike Noon quotes an Australian study which found young drivers reduced their death and injury rates by 70 per cent if they bought the safest car in their spending bracket.

"The car you are in really does matter," says Mr Zollner. "If you're buying a car or helping your child to purchase their first vehicle, make sure you buy them a car that is protecting them." He says there are no plans to make star ratings mandatory but road safety officials are working with dealers on a voluntary scheme and have found many are keen to be involved. He says Turners Auctions has already introduced the idea.

3 Tax vehicle registrations
This was suggested in the latest action plan of the Safer Journeys programme, a collaboration between various Government departments and the AA. The idea was for a "vehicle safety levy", either when vehicles are sold or licensed, which would supposedly encourage drivers to get rid of their old cars. This is important because the average New Zealand car is more than 13 years old and lacks modern safety features which reduce the chance of death or serious injury. Mr Zollner says the idea is still being worked on. "It has merit but it's not a golden bullet."

4 Reduce truck numbers
It's not likely to happen, as the country's rail network is in decline, but trucks are involved in 15 per cent of fatal crashes even though they make up only 6 per cent of kilometres travelled, according to a road toll report for the Ministry of Transport. Road safety campaigner Clive Matthew-Wilson says that doesn't mean truckies are bad drivers - it's just that crashes involving heavy trucks are more likely to kill someone. He argues that if more freight went by rail, roads could be designed for cars instead of trucks, making safety features such as rumble strips much cheaper to install as roads would not need widening.

5 Lower speed limits on high-risk roads
Officials are working on the ideal speed limit for every stretch of state highway in the country, based on a combination of road safety, travel times and vehicles' running costs. As Mr Zollner told the Weekend Herald, the current open road speed limit is 100km/h everywhere but "the optimal speed on a motorway is not the same as on a winding road in the Coromandel". The idea is being tested with variable speed limits at problem intersections, which warn drivers to slow down from 100km/h to 70km/h if there is approaching traffic. Mr Noon is hopeful the limit on straight stretches of motorways could be raised to 110km/h - an idea previously rejected by former Transport Minister Steven Joyce.

6 More barriers
The AA wants another 200km built on state highways, which Mr Noon reckons is common sense. "If you're coming out of Wellington on a four-star motorway, fall asleep at the wheel and come off the road, if it's divided by a median barrier it's unlikely you'd be killed. But if you drive up the road to Levin and come off the road into trees and poles, even at 80km/h, you're in trouble. Drivers can make the same mistake but the forgivingness of the road to the driver's error can have consequences." The evidence from a decade's work on previously dangerous stretches of SH1 between Auckland and Hamilton seems to back this up. Between 2000-06 and 2007-11, fatal crashes between Mercer and Rangiriri fell from nine to one, thanks to a new straight dual carriageway with a median barrier.

7 Save born-again motorcyclists
Years ago it was young men hooning around on motorbikes. They're still a problem but the new headache for Mr Zollner and his colleagues are the "born-again motorcyclists" - 50 to 60-year-old men who get back on their bikes a few times a year and often lack the experience to handle machines which are much more powerful than what they used to ride. "The thing we find hardest is that going fast around dangerous corners is half the reason [they] want to do it," he says. "So when we come along with the safety message it's almost the opposite. We send cops out on motorbikes to meet the bikers where they gather and we found that's been highly effective. They meet in a cafe for coffee, talk about the bike, the gear. Unfortunately it's also very expensive."

8 Target high-risk drivers
"As we're getting the general system safer it's becoming clear that we need to focus on a few high-risk people," says Mr Zollner. "We increasingly know who they are, where they are and when they're at risk." He says Counties-Manukau police now make a habit of visiting well-known repeat offenders before a long weekend. They ask the drivers about their plans and remind them what happened last time. He says the direct approach sometimes pays off. "One cop told me they knew this person had a problem, so the cop went and talked to the family. That person went through Easter fine. It was the first time they hadn't been picked up on a long weekend."

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9 Stop repeat drink-drivers
Mr Noon wants to see repeat offenders get treatment in prison instead of coming out and doing the same thing again. "We call it catch and release. The police are very good at catching them, the courts are very good at processing them, but if we don't do anything to address their drinking patterns [and] we know we will catch them again." He thinks it's crazy that people can go through the system multiple times and get no treatment, when there are many successful rehabilitation programmes. Mr Noon also wants much greater use of alcohol interlocks, currently the subject of a Government review. "In 18 months since interlocks became a sentencing option in 2012, only 158 interlocks have been fitted from an estimated 12,000 eligible candidates."

10 Roadside drug testing
Mr Noon says extending random testing from drink to drugs is a must. He quotes a 2010 Environment, Science and Research (ESR) study on 1046 drivers killed in road crashes, which found nearly half had alcohol and/or drugs in their system and 72 per cent of these drivers had been using drugs. Previously the Government has resisted such calls, saying the saliva test for drugs was not reliable enough, but last year it indicated a rethink was likely. The Safer Journeys Action Plan 2013-15 said: "Our aim is to move New Zealand towards a robust, cost-effective approach to random roadside drug screening and testing as soon as practicable and justified."

Changes which have already helped
*Raising driver licence age to 16.
*Tougher licence test.
*Zero blood alcohol limit for drivers under 20.
*Blood alcohol limit lowered from 0.8 to 0.5 (due at the end of year but reportedly affecting behaviour already).

These maps show which NZ roads have the most accidents:

Source: KiwiRAP

- NZ Herald

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