Valerie May has a central median barrier to thank for saving her life.

May was heading to Kerikeri to visit her daughter when a driver friend, Jan, momentarily got distracted and swerved into a median barrier heading north on State Highway 1 over the Brynderwyn Hills.

The Mazda saloon hit the median barrier side-on, losing its front mudguard and a wheel by the time the car pulled over to the side of the road.

It was a terrifying moment for Valerie, who turned 90 this month, and her friend, who both walked away unscathed from the accident. The car was written off.


"It just took a second when Jan took her eye off the road to switch off the rear window wipers. She was looking at the dashboard to find the switch. It all happened so quickly," May said.

Valerie May pictured at home in Te Puke. She say she survived a car crash in Northland because of the wire median barrier her car hit instead of oncoming traffic.
Valerie May pictured at home in Te Puke. She say she survived a car crash in Northland because of the wire median barrier her car hit instead of oncoming traffic.

It had been raining and was misty when the pair were driving downhill on the Brynderwyns into a fair amount of traffic.

If it wasn't for the median barrier, May said, it is likely the car would have crossed the centre line into an oncoming vehicle.

May is in no doubt median barriers are an important safeguard that prevent deaths and serious injuries. She certainly approves of them on the busy stretch of road between Tauranga and Te Puke where she lives in a retirement village.

Median and road safety barriers are one of many road safety improvements being made to New Zealand's treacherous roads. They catch vehicles before they hit something harder like a pole, tree or oncoming car.

The wire cables flex to absorb the impact, slow down the vehicle and keep it upright. When fitted along the side and centre of the road, barriers reduce road deaths by up to 90 per cent.

Other safety measures being installed include widening the centreline to steer drivers away from each other and shoulder widening to make room to recover from a driving mistake. They can reduce crashes by up to 35 per cent.

NZ Transport Agency director of safety Harry Wilson said some less obvious measures are being taken to make roads safer, such as clearing trees and fences right up against the road.

"I have seen too many photos of people impaled," he said.

NZTA director of safety Harry Wilson.
NZTA director of safety Harry Wilson.

Wilson said motorists will notice more median and side barriers, wider centre lanes, rumble strips and roundabouts when they go away this summer. Median barriers cost $100,000 per km for the wire and $1.5m per km to put in, mostly due to the cost of having to widen the road.

Another new feature on state highways are intersection speed zones.

These are electronic signs that detect when someone is turning into or out of a side road, or crossing the highway from another road. When this happens, a sign will flash, reducing the speed limit on the state highway, usually from 100km/h to 60km/h or 70km/h.

Thirteen intersection speed zones are already in place from Northland to Invercargill. A study of the first 10 speed zones found fatal and serious accidents reduced by 79 per cent and overall crashes were down by 59 per cent.

A further 10 intersection speed zones are being installed, including six in Waikato and two in Northland. The other two are in South Canterbury and Otago. Each one costs about $200,000.

Safety improvements are just one of four priorities being worked on by NZTA to make New Zealand's roads safer.

The agency is also working to make people better drivers, cars safer and reduce speed limits on high-risk roads.

Wilson said a working group is looking to make recommendations to the Government in the New Year on speed limits, including higher speeds on some roads. For the past year, motorists have been able to travel at 110km/h on sections of the Tauranga Eastern Link and the Cambridge section of the Waikato Expressway.

The idea, he said, is to better standardise speed limits to 110km/h, 100, 80, 60, 40, not speeds in between.

Wilson said compared with European roads, New Zealand has a long way to go with its big network of roads, a small population and limited financial resources.

Asked to rank New Zealand's roads on a scale of 1 to 10, Wilson said he would mark New Zealand about 5.

"We have to have better roads, absolutely. A white line down the middle of the road is no protection," he said.

NZTA's four priorities for safer roads
Safe roads and roadsides: Install medium barriers, rumblestrips, wide centre lines and roundabouts on high-risk highways, local roads and intersections. Safety improvements for walking, cycling and motorcycling. Plan for liveable and safe communities with a focus on people, not cars.
Fact: Head-on and loss of control crashes account for over two thirds of all fatal crashes.

Safe people: Help people in need to get a drivers license, including programmes in secondary schools. Support the uptake of alcohol interlocks and roadside drug testing by police. Work with Ministry of Transport on driver licensing, training for motorcyclists and offences and penalties, including increased penalties for mobile phone use.
Fact: In 2015 and 2016, 191 people who died in crashes were not wearing seatbelts.

Safe speeds: Reduce speed limits on high-risk roads. Focus on the top 10 per cent of roads where greatest death and serious injury savings can be achieved. Advertising campaigns for road safety and speed management. Work with police on speed cameras.
Fact: 87 per cent of roads have speed limits higher than the safe and appropriate speed limit.

Safe vehicles: Communications programme to reduce the number of 1 and 2 star safety cars. Improve heavy vehicle safety. Investigate licensing mechanisms to remove the least safe and highest emitting vehicles. Increase the use of life-saving technology, such as fatigue monitoring and phone blockers. Work with MOT to restrict importation of unsafe vehicles.
Fact: Vehicles with a low 1 and 2 safety rating account for 66 per cent of road deaths and serious injuries.