New Zealand has fallen dramatically short of its road safety targets, says Traffic Institute president Andy Foster.

And he said part of the reason for the failure was "lack of political guts".

Ten years ago, the Government approved a target to bring the road toll down to below 300 a year by this year, and hospitalisation rates below 4500 a year.

"As a nation we've made progress but we will fall badly short of that target, where leading nations like Sweden and the UK have achieved equally ambitious targets," said Mr Foster.

"New Zealand's failure is largely attributable to misplaced investment priorities and a lack of political guts."

The institute's annual conference began in Wellington yesterday.

Mr Foster, a Wellington city councillor, said the conference would involve some serious soul-searching.

"Hundreds of people continue to be needlessly killed on our roads - and thousands maimed - largely because politicians haven't had the courage to make some decisions that, on the face of it, might initially be unpopular.

"However, we think there's a lot of support for action.

"Surely our Government should be valuing us as highly as the leaders of other nations value their citizens.

"It seems too many are almost comfortable with a certain number of deaths and injuries."

During the past 12 months, 370 people died and thousands more were injured badly enough to require hospital treatment.

Mr Foster said the Traffic Institute predicted as long ago as 2005 that New Zealand would not meet the targets.

"It was obvious the then government was not acting on most of the proposals in the strategy, written in 2000 by the-then Land Transport Safety Authority," he said.

"The Government knew it too and did a mid-term review and a wide consultation exercise.

"However, when presented by its safety agencies, police, Transfund, ACC etc, with a range of initiatives, it essentially ducked the lot."

He placed most of the blame for a continuing high road toll on the previous Labour-led government, saying it had eight years to take action.

"However, while the present National-led government is doing some good things in terms of road safety, it is also showing worrying signs of not being able to make some tough calls to save lives," Mr Foster said.

"We're starting to see moves made on alcohol, and driver training, for example, but too hesitantly - and its road investment programme is a huge opportunity missed."

The conference features four international speakers including Tony Bliss, one of the architects of the 2000 strategy and now lead road-safety specialist for the World Bank.