It is never advisable to judge a policy on what will probably turn out to be a short-term abnormality. Therefore, the New Zealand First police spokesman, Ron Mark, was on thin ice when he suggested a zero-tolerance speed campaign over the Christmas-New Year period had been a "failed experiment". The basis for his statement was a road toll which, at 17, was more than double that of the previous year. All the previous evidence, however, has indicated that a lower tolerance to speeding on holiday weekends led to improved driver behaviour.
On those grounds, it seems likely that the Christmas-New Year toll was an aberration. So, too, the provisional toll of 297 people killed on the country's roads last year, a sharp increase from 2013's 253 deaths. The latter was the lowest toll in 60 years, and part of a steady decline from a peak of 843 deaths in 1973. Betters cars and better roads have played a major part in this, as has a sustained campaign against drink-driving.
Speed, however, has remained a vexed issue. Hence there has been a progressive lowering of the police's tolerance, culminating in the zero tolerance policy. This has been criticised by many motorists. Some of their complaints are lame. Those who say it has resulted in them spending too much time with their eyes on their speedometers betray a fundamental lack of driving ability. Nonetheless, it is clear that the police must re-examine where they are enforcing the policy.
The Automobile Association is right when it suggests a focus on drivers doing just over the limit on safe urban motorways is not the best strategy. The scrutiny, it said, should be on speeding in higher-risk areas. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, motorways are, by and large, relatively safe, so much so that the speed limit may soon be raised to 110km/h on some of them. Secondly, there is no point in alienating generally good motorists who are caught slightly over the speed limit in such areas.
Strict laws and heavy penalties will never, in themselves, produce a better attitude to speeding. Nor can the police ever be visible enough to enforce such an attitude. Much of the response must involve discretionary policing that focuses on those going dangerously faster than the flow of traffic. Those exceeding the limit by a small amount but creating no danger to other road-users should warrant a warning, not a ticket. Police statistics show that while more people are being caught speeding, they are not speeding by as much. In other words, the message is getting through, except to the small minority who should be the police's target.
The Automobile Association was also on the right track when it suggested there should be an increased number of median barriers on highways. These, whether concrete, semi-rigid or cable, are not cheap. But they appeal as a means of curtailing the number of head-on crashes involving overseas tourists. The outcome of these impacts is generally more serious than other types of collisions. Improving the country's roads in this manner offers the most rational response to what has become a notable problem.