AA member research stalwart Peter King died suddenly earlier this month during his routine lunchtime exercise regime. He was just 62.
Over 22 years with the AA, King built an industry leading database identifying what the 1.9 million AA members think about all manner of transport issues. He made the NZAA the most authoritative source of the driving public’s opinion in the country. He will be sadly missed.
But King was not just a research aficionado. He was a deep thinker who wrote passionately about a range of issues, including the role of mental health in improving the safety of our roads. Over many years, he read every one of the fatal crash reports in the Waka Kotahi NZTA crash analysis system, with an eye for discovering the nature of the people in the crash, rather than the physical nature of the crash itself.
Two years ago King wrote: “What you learn about the trips that end badly when you read the human story, is that many of these situations are so far from normal as to be almost unthinkable to many people. Normal people don’t lie down drunk in the road at night. Normal people don’t fight in the middle of a highway. Normal people don’t get out of a moving taxi because they don’t like the driver. Normal people don’t belong to motorcycle gangs. These might be extreme examples, but you also see the alcoholics, the kids with ADHD, the suicidal, the depressed. And what you begin to realise is that road safety is mostly a mental health problem.
“That is why kids speed through the night taunting police, why people drink to the excesses they do, why they take drugs, why they drive with suicidal ferocity, why they take absurd risks with themselves and everyone else. These people are not all happy, law abiding rational decision makers making little miscalculations with terrible consequences. Many are people with deep seated and often life long problems for whom the criminal justice system, in all its expectations of rational decision making, is simply another irritation which adds no value whatsoever.”
King’s central message is that you can’t build your way to safer roads without dealing with mental health issues that constitute recidivist bad and dangerous driving.
“It’s time government agencies recognised that road safety is not just about engineering solutions. Transport is just people in motion and unless people are well, bad things will happen,” he concluded.
Interestingly in December last year, NZTA published a report titled, Effective Alternatives to Penalties for Repeat Driving Offenders. This was a year long international study which identified with the Road to Zero strategy as, “Our approach also needs to address the underlying issues which lead to some people offending, rather than responding solely to the offending itself.”
The focus of the report was on alternatives to penalties which could reduce the harm caused by high risk driving behaviours such as: alcohol and drug use; speeding; seatbelt non-use; mobile phone use and fatigued driving. As it turned out, the study’s main focus was on mitigating the on-road outcomes of recidivist drunk and drugged drivers - of which Northland Road Safety Trust’s Drive Soba programme was one studied.
Drive Soba was developed by Whangārei registered psychologist Bronwen Wood some 16 years ago for the then Northland District Health Board. The course targets Northlanders who have been convicted at least three times of a drink-driving offence. It runs as group sessions for two hours a week over 12 weeks. The program has multiple delivery approaches, including cognitive behavioural therapy and motivational interviews. Over its first 10 years the programme had an 82 per cent non-reoffending rate, by far the most successful of a handful of similar type New Zealand programmes.
This psychology-based approach demonstrates a significant reduction in recidivist drink-driving offending, and Wood has since developed specific behaviour-based courses for first time drink drivers, identified high-risk drivers, and drugged drivers, all delivered by Northland Road Safety Trust. Referrals are from multiple agencies and an increasing number of self-referrals from drivers who recognise their problem.
The NZTA report recommended developing and delivering a national driver intervention programme based on psychological and mental health factors, along with appropriate funding, guidance and accountabilities.
R.I.P. Peter King, your message about getting the mental health issue into the safer roads mindset is finally getting through.