Every year our road toll stands as a stark reminder of the dangers of driving in New Zealand.
Last year’s toll was creeping back up to the highs of 2017 and 2018, the worst years in recent memory, when 378 deaths were recorded.
Our road toll is regularly among the worst in the OECD.
The numbers don’t begin to tell the full story, though. They cannot accurately describe the tragedy and waste of life, the pain and anguish of the bereaved, the trauma of family and emergency services involved in the often confronting immediate aftermath of a crash, nor the long legacy of loss.
We often blame our country’s roads, their condition, our topography, the weather.
We all know the common culprits: alcohol, inattention, fatigue, not wearing seatbelts. And speed. We know speed kills.
Waka Kotahi, the government agency tasked with providing safe and functional land transport, is prioritising lower speed limits, along with other safety improvements, in its Interim State Highway Speed Management Plan for 2023-2024.
The agency says more than 85 per cent of our roads have a speed limit higher than what it calls the “safe and appropriate speed”. That percentage may come as a shock to many.
The agency is proposing speed limit changes to just over 3 per cent of the state highway network, some 350km of the 11,000km network identified as high risk, and associated with 279 fatal and serious crashes since 2017.
It also proposes changes to speed limits around several hundred schools, marae and other urban areas in an effort to combat our stubbornly high road toll.
This is just the start. More changes can be expected in the agency’s full State Highway Speed Management Plan for 2024-2027, to be released for public consultation in June.
By 2030, the agency hopes to improve the safety of 40 per cent of the country’s highways through lower speed limits or road safety improvements.
Yesterday, the Herald launched “The Slowdown”, a series that is using data analysis to examine how speed contributes to our road death toll and whether those speed limit changes proposed by the agency will help save lives - including those of men and Maori, who are over-represented in the statistics. Men are almost three times as likely to be killed on the road as women.
The issue of speed limits can certainly be contentious.
Critics argue we need to build better roads and better maintain them - and speed reductions are easy political pickings.
Transport operators put a high priority on safety, but are also wary about the economic impact of reduced speed limits.
Waka Kotahi is adamant its proposals are only a part of the infrastructure work it is doing to make the country’s roads safer - but is the agency funded enough to meet all the expectations on it?
Follow the series this week as we explore whether the drive to lower speed limits will be the panacea it is hoped.