No one needs to tell the authorities that our road toll is appalling. They are also aware that Northland's toll, and the Far North's, are significantly worse than might be expected in terms of the region's and district's populations. As of yesterday Northland roads had claimed 19 lives so far this year, four more than in mid-May last year, while nine had died in the Far North. Both figures could have been higher.
'The images we see on social media of drivers, tourists or not, driving dangerously are less easily forgiven, but it is important to remember that foreigners make a very small contribution to our extraordinary road toll.'One thing that strikes anyone who has any familiarity with car crashes is that some collisions that, according to all that is logical, should result in death don't, while some that appear relatively minor can have tragic consequences. Read more: Kaitaia man offers solution for tourist road safety Fatal crash in Houhora kills two elderly women Tributes for two old girls who died after crash in Houhora The two-car collision at Waipapakauri Ramp on April 13 could easily have taken multiple lives. The six people in the two cars suffered injuries ranging from moderate to grievous, but no one died. Earlier this month three cars were involved in a crash on SH10 near Lake Ohia, and again, despite the damage done to the vehicles, no one died. In fact all those involved in that crash literally walked away. Last week two women died in a two-vehicle crash on Houhora Heads Road that, again according to all that is logical, should not have been fatal. Yet it has left two families, indeed an entire community, in mourning. The SH10 crash appeared to have been the result of driver error, which probably puts it well within the most common scenario, but it is the Waipapakauri Ramp and Houhora Heads collisions that have sparked outrage, given that both involved vehicles driven by foreign nationals who appeared to have forgotten which side of the road they should have been driving on. So once again people are calling for 'someone' to do 'something'. It is hardly surprising that foreign drivers are demonised. Those who crash are often clearly at fault, and images of tourists driving badly, as recorded by following vehicles' dashcams, are posted on social media on an almost daily basis. We should remember though that they are doing nothing illegal in hiring vehicles when they arrive here, and that just as a New Zealander's instinctive reaction when confronted by another vehicle in their country would be to pull left, theirs while driving here is to pull right. The images we see on social media of drivers, tourists or not, driving dangerously are less easily forgiven, but it is important to remember that foreigners make a very small contribution to our extraordinary road toll. Meanwhile government wheels are turning, very slowly, and without inspiring any great expectations that anything is going to change. There is talk of reducing speed limits on roads that do not have median barriers. That's not going to happen, and even if it does, very few will obey the reduced limits. The cost and practicalities of median barriers alone make that idea a non-starter. They would have prevented all three crashes referred to above, but would have rendered all three roads single-lane in each direction. Who's going to wear that? Associate Transport Minister Julie-Anne Genter's stated aim of reducing the road toll to zero is equally ludicrous. That's more about getting headlines than doing anything constructive. The reality is that as long as we drive wheeled vehicles, people are going to die. We are told that more die on our roads than do in comparable countries, perhaps because of the nature of our roads, or our national psyche, which reportedly turns some of us into aggressive speed demons the moment we get behind the wheel. We know of some specific factors — alcohol (which is actually involved in a minority of crashes), tiredness, speed (whether that be in excess of the limit or in excess of what is reasonable and safe on any given road whatever the limit might be), and an inability to accurately assess the potential for disaster. Surely the most fixable crash factor is inadvertently driving on the wrong side of the road (and be assured it is inadvertent; no one without a death wish would do it deliberately). And it could start today, with the painting of arrows in the left-hand lanes of highways and local roads. Some roads already have arrows, but not enough. And Kaitaia man John Stewart's idea, of replacing the fog line on sealed roads with arrows, deserves much greater attention than it has received so far. Surely it would not be beyond the means of roading authorities to progressively replace what is now a solid white line with a broken one, indicating which side drivers should be on? Presumably that would merely involve tweaking the machines used to paint the lines. Not a total solution perhaps, but it would be a good start, effectively at no cost. Longer-term, the technology that is now available in some new cars, which tells the driver when they are leaving their lane, should be mandatory in vehicles hired by foreign drivers, or at least those who are used to driving on the right. Certainly something needs to be done. The proprietor of the Houhora Heads camp, which the Chilean driver involved in last week's crash had driven away from moments before the collision, has undertaken to erect signs warning drivers to keep left. That is a good thing to do, but the message needs to be repeated at regular intervals, and if anyone has a better idea than John Stewart's, let's hear it. It is important to keep this issue in proportion though. Tourists are by no means the greatest threat to our health and wellbeing on the roads, but the more common factors behind our awful toll are more intractable. If we as a society were going to learn our lesson about the dangers of driving at ridiculous speeds, while we are drunk or affected by drugs, while we are so tired that we can't keep our eyes open, we would have done so by now. It might well be that more people die, or kill others, while fleeing police at horrendous speeds than are killed in crashes involving tourists. Last week a 15-year-old boy took off from Kaitaia in a stolen car at more than 140km/h. The potential for death in that situation is enormous, but we persist in blaming our roads (which in most cases can be driven at 100km/h in perfect safety), a lack of median barriers and anything else we can think of that doesn't come back to our own behaviour. Innocent people who are doing absolutely nothing wrong die on our roads all too often. We saw that again at Houhora last week. But notice that emergency services have all but stopped talking about accidents. That's deliberate. Many who deal with the carnage have long ceased believing in the concept of 'accidents,' because of the human element that in so many cases makes calamity all but inevitable. What happened at Houhora Heads on Tuesday might well be deemed an accident, given that neither driver appeared to have been deliberately doing anything dangerous, reckless or illegal. That actually makes it something of a rarity. There is no doubt that politicians need to do something about drivers who are used to keeping right and who can step off a plane and into a car with no apparent instruction about how we should drive in this country. But if they really want to have an impact on the toll, perhaps they should be asking if it is too easy to get a licence to drive (which it isn't), and more pertinently, too easy to keep one.