Last week, a Northland coroner found that a rutted road caused the death of a motorcyclist. It is not very often a coroner specifically identifies that the poor state of the road caused a death.
The motorcyclist was doing everything right, but the road caused his demise. As an aside, the coroner suggested a sign should be erected at the spot to indicate the state of the road so that drivers can adjust their behaviour.
Too often, it seems to me, the answer to poor driver behaviour or to the poor state of the road is to put up a sign to warn of the danger. And that fixes it.
Two other recent incidents I am aware of prompted that same initial reaction. One was a horse being spooked by an inconsiderate driver on a straight, uphill road. The rider was dumped, breaking her shoulder with a long and frustrating recovery ahead.
One suggested answer was a sign warning of riders, pedestrians or children. The driver was clearly careless or even dangerous but, also, horses can be unpredictable and riding along the roadside is potentially fraught.
The other incident was a child having alighted from a school bus being hit and seriously injured. This particular road apparently has a crash history, and the suggestion was of warning speed signs to warn of that fact.
The answer for many people to warning of, or preventing roadside incidents, is to put up a sign and the problem is sorted.
The reported coroner finding was, "Chevron signage would have been a simple, low-cost and obvious remedy to address the risk that was created by the road topography. If such signage had been in place the accident and subsequent death would likely not have happened," the coroner said.
That is a big call about the effectiveness of signs, especially bearing in mind Waikato University research suggests that drivers notice an average of only 15 per cent of well- maintained and visible speed signs on the roadside.
Signs in the roading environment need to be permitted by the road controlling authority and there are size and dimensions limitations. As well, there are official speed limit, advisory speed and hazard warning signs designed to inform and warn drivers about the road ahead.
The problem arises when there are too many roadside signs that are confusing, create inattention blindness and information overload, and cause a distraction and threat to road safety.
A recent UK court case had a distracted driver's fine overturned after the court ruled, "that there were too many road signs for the brain to process".
A road sign should inform and/or warn about the road ahead. The literature suggests that to be effective a road sign should:
• Fulfil a need
• Command attention
• Convey a clear and simple message
• Command respect from the road user
• Give adequate time to respond.
This is not a bad template to put against all the signs we confront along the road - are they clear and will they change driver behaviour with sufficient pre-warning to allow that to happen?
Or – are they just there for the personal edification of those who created them?
This raises the question of the current suggestion that all roadside signs indicating place names, should be bilingual alongside New Zealand roads. That might satisfy a politically correct agenda, but has the potential to cause confusion and compromise the safety of our roads.
A recent statement from the UK equivalent of our AA suggests that getting rid of a third of the roadside signs will help drivers to better assess the road ahead, creating less confusion and giving them a keener sense of the potential dangers.
When we actively notice only 15 per cent of the roadside signs now, it is likely that fewer signs that are periodically audited as to their contribution to clearly informing drivers, will make for a more pleasant and safer driving environment.
• John Williamson is chairman of Roadsafe Northland and Northland Road Safety Trust, a former national councillor for NZ Automobile Association and former Whangārei District Council member.