On the face of it, the NZ Transport Agency's extraordinary 'confession' that just 5 per cent of this country's roads are fit for their existing speed limits paves the way for reductions that will lower the rate at which we are killing and maiming ourselves. Some, however, see it as another salvo in the Government's Green-led war on cars, aimed at persuading us that we would be far better off on buses and trains than behind the wheel.
Fine, perhaps, for city dwellers, but not so flash for those of us who don't have much choice but to make our own arrangements, who, presumably, will continue to destroy the planet with our greenhouse gas emissions for some time to come.
The war on cars theory gains some credibility when one considers that Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter has described some motorists as "car fascists", whatever that means, although Simon Bridges said last week that when he was Minister of Transport he was approached several times by officials with whacky ideas for reducing the road toll. He was never tempted, he said, and it isn't clear whether reducing traffic to a crawl was ever floated with him, but the idea might have been bubbling for some time.
The difference now perhaps is that the reduced speed limit theory has found a more receptive government.
The fact that many of this country's open roads, where 100km/h is the permitted maximum, cannot be driven at anything remotely approaching that speed is hardly news. As Phil Twyford might put it, 100km/h is aspirational, meaning it is unachievable. To suggest that no roads in the Far North, which is a little hillier and windier than some regions, and in places (like a short stretch of SH1 at Umawera) notoriously difficult to build roads that don't slump left, right and centre, can safely carry vehicles at that speed is utter nonsense though.
A map published by the NZ Herald last week seemed to show that the only highway in Northland that could be safely travelled at that speed was the Ruakaka Straights. Whoever compiled that map might not be familiar with Northland's state highways, or many of its local roads.
Crash rates would also suggest that the existing urban speed limits in Northland are perfectly safe, and do not require reducing.
That should be good news for the NZTA, whose claim that 95 per cent of roads are not fit for existing speed limits has to be this country's most appalling admission of failure. It is the NZTA's responsibility, is it not, to ensure that roads are fit for purpose? If it has failed to achieve that in 95 per cent of the roading network, it has some serious questions to answer.
Don't hold your breath though. Answering questions does not seem to be its strong suit. In fact, its response to Kerikeri man Peter Heath earlier this year suggests that it prefers gut instinct to facts.
Mr Heath, who took severe umbrage over a petition calling for a reduced speed limit over Kawakawa's three bridges, put a number of questions to the NZTA. It 'refused' to answer two of them, because it did not have the information he was after.
Mr Heath wanted to know how many accidents on that short stretch of SH1 were caused by someone who was exceeding the speed limit or disobeying the Road Code in some other way, and how many were caused by someone who was travelling at 80km/h or less. The NZTA replied that that information "does not exist".
It did not collect information on whether a driver disobeyed the Road Code, although the crash analysis system did record factors that "probably" contributed to the crash. Inappropriate speed had been recorded as a contributing factor in one (fatal) crash.
The NZTA did not, however, have information on vehicle speeds at the time of a crash.
One has to wonder, therefore, if reducing the speed limit would have an impact on crash rates. The police, obviously, have some idea of the proportion of accidents involving "inappropriate" speeds, which if memory serves is credited with playing a part in 25 per cent of fatal crashes (meaning speed is not a factor in three out of four), but apparently they don't pass that on to the NZTA.
You'd have to wonder why not. And you'd have to wonder how the NZTA can now calculate that 95 per cent of roads in this country are not fit for their posted speed limits.
One might also wonder how it is that a government that apparently loses sleep over our road toll can deliver a 2019 Budget that, according to National, reduced the allocation for the New Zealand Road Safety Programme by almost $10 million (to $331m). That, National says, means fewer "traffic cops" on the road, fewer breath tests, and less enforcement of driving laws.
There can be no doubt that a lot of crashes involve driver stupidity or impairment, whatever the posted speed limit, or that the average reasonably prudent driver does not see the posted limit as something to be strived for at all costs. No one in their right mind drives at 100km/h through the Mangamuka Gorge, whatever the speed limit sign says, but the NZTA doesn't seem to accept that most of us adjust our speed to what is safe for us and others.
At least they haven't — yet — suggested restoring the requirement that a man (person — let's not discriminate on the basis of gender) runs in front of every car on the road waving a red flag, although that would reduce our obesity and type 2 diabetes problems. Speed, while undoubtedly a factor in some cases, might not be the sole culprit though.
The first pedestrian to be killed in the United Kingdom, Bridget Driscoll, died on August 17, 1896, when she was struck in the grounds of the Crystal Palace in London, by a car described by one witness as travelling at "a reckless pace, in fact, like a fire engine". The car was designed for a maximum speed of 13km/h, but had been modified to reduce that to 6.4km/h, the speed at which the driver claimed to have been travelling. Ms Driscoll died a few weeks after a new Act of Parliament had increased the speed limit for cars to 23km/h, from 3.2km/h in towns and 6.4km/h in the countryside.
The jury returned a verdict of accidental death after an inquest lasting some six hours, the coroner saying he hoped such a thing would never happen again. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents estimated that 550,000 people had been killed on UK roads by 2010.
There is probably no need to become too exercised about this rush of blood to the NZTA's head though. It is inconceivable that we will see open road speed limits reduced to the 60-80km/h that were suggested last week as being safe, and hopefully someone will explain to Ms Genter the meaning of the term 'hospital pass'.
If she's not familiar with it she might like to ask Shane Jones, who will no doubt recall being given the task under Helen Clark's leadership of selling the idea that we needed telling how big our shower heads could be, and the public response.
There is plenty that the Government could do to make roads safer — engineering, policing, driver education/licensing and penalties for those whose behaviour suggests they should not be allowed to drive could all contribute. Slowing traffic to crawl won't, if for no other reason than, like many other restrictions on our behaviour, lower limits will only be observed by those who are not part of the problem.