As people gather for the tangi of the family members killed in last weekend's horror road crash, what's this clamour for road safety campaigns to stop targeting "at risk" drivers, speed and road conditions? Now we're hearing it's time to appeal instead to everyone's sense of personal responsibility. We all need to be better drivers.
What a dangerous idea.
It's true we don't drive well enough. But if you want to change public behaviour, on almost anything, "we all need to do better" is quite possibly the most ineffective message you can use. Just ask the campaigners against junk food.
Unless the noble sentiments are backed by regulations and action to remove and reduce risk factors, they are merely platitudes. Worse, they take the pressure off transport authorities to play their role in increasing safety. And that's an urgent task, because at national and local level, they've been surprisingly reluctant to accept they need to change their approach.
Safety simply has not been considered important enough. More on that below.
First, the question of better driving. It's not wrong to urge everyone to improve. Good, safety-conscious driving is obviously an important component of road safety, and the message should be spread widely. Especially to those who don't think they need to hear it.
In a driving skills test on TV a few years back, they sent the drivers barrelling down a racetrack and round a corner to discover a wall of cardboard boxes. What should you do? Turn left, turn right, try to stop?
Most drivers did their best to swerve around the wall. But the middle-aged guy, who'd described himself as a good, experienced driver, just blanked out. He couldn't decide what to do, so he didn't do anything. Just plowed at high speed straight into the middle of the wall.
Maybe we're all that guy. You can explain everything wrong in the world, from climate change on down, if you accept that we are all that guy.
Except, when it comes to driving, we're not him, are we? Nobody is. Nobody gets behind the wheel of the car believing they will be unable to cope with a sudden emergency. Even though the number of crashes on our roads suggests quite a few of us discover, a little too late, that we are that guy after all.
We like to blame young people, because they believe they are bulletproof so they take stupid risks. Especially young guys. But why do we think that belief disappears with age? Don't middle-aged men think they're bulletproof too? We believe we've gained the experience and skills to know what we think, know how to behave and know how to look after ourselves. We not only know how to drive, we think we're the best drivers.
We are the kings of our own world – if not in every respect, then certainly when we are driving. We are all the Dude. Although obviously we're the non-stupid version.
This is also true for women who think they are the best drivers because they are more "naturally cautious". And for everyone who has driven in an overseas metropolis, who thinks our roads are easy compared with that. And for super-safe drivers who never speed and maybe don't look around so much either.
So is the new argument about road safety campaigns sensible after all? If we're all responsible, maybe that's what the message should be? We all think we're better drivers than we are and we need to be told we're not.
But it's not sensible, and not only because most of us don't believe it applies to us.
Vehicle crashes don't happen just because somebody was driving badly. Like most catastrophes, they are almost always caused by a combination of circumstances. You're coping with the bad country road and tiredness, but there's a sudden distraction. You have fully focused awareness of every car in front of you at the busy intersection, but you don't notice the bike coming up behind you.
The Government addressed this directly with the new concept it introduced to road safety last year, when it announced a target of zero road deaths. That was promptly scoffed at by a bunch of people who doubtless believe they are terrific drivers, but lost in the scoffing was an important insight.
It was this: all drivers make mistakes, so the critical requirement is a road safety environment that minimises the risks of those mistakes causing serious harm.
That means safer roads, safer cars, a lower social tolerance for high-risk driving and much more.
The safer roads component is being addressed with a rollout of crash-prevention features like light median barriers, roadside rumble strips and better intersection design. Such features have a proven track record overseas and are relatively low cost. What's not to like?
And yes, better driving skills are also important. Greg Murphy's suggestion of limited-life driver licences makes a lot of sense as part of that. So do lower speed limits on sections of road known to be especially dangerous.
The point about speed is not that it causes most road deaths. It's thought to be a factor in only about a third of bad crashes, which has led many people to argue it's not really a big deal. The point about speed is that when it's involved, the consequences are much worse. Your chance of dying when hit by a car travelling at 50km/h is four to five times higher than if it's going 30km/h.
The point about speed is that it kills.
But beyond all this, why aren't our roads already safer? The answer is the sordid secret of traffic planning: safety has been sacrificed to another priority. Travel time.
Both the NZ Transport Agency and Auckland Transport prioritise travel time. They judge roads a success if they reduce the time of a journey.
That means success equals speed, and safety features are compromised. Every pedestrian crossing slows traffic, as does every footpath on a semi-rural road in the Waitakere Ranges and every intersection where you take out the left-hand slip lane.
In the city, a wide suburban road might have a median strip painted on it, to keep the opposing lanes of traffic apart. Sounds like a safety feature, right? But it's not, because it encourages cars to go faster, and it reduces the amount of space available for footpaths and bike lanes.
Better, from a safety perspective, to have the opposing lanes divided only by a white line, to introduce bike lanes and to lower the speed limit. The benefits flow to pedestrians, cyclists and everyone at risk from speeding traffic. But the motorist's journey might take a little bit longer.
Auckland Transport is conflicted about all this. It wants lower speeds limit on 700km, about a tenth, of Auckland's roads. But at the same time many of its roading engineers love those painted medians and they commonly oppose local communities who want more pedestrian crossings and footpaths.
NZTA is conflicted too, not so much with itself as with the Government, which also wants lower speed limits in dangerous areas.
It's good that the horror crashes of last month have forced us to confront the crisis on our roads. The situation in this country is appalling but it's not inevitable. Our death and serious injury rates are rising while in several other comparable countries they are falling. In Auckland especially, those rises have been shocking: a 78 per cent increase in road deaths between 2014 and 2017.
But the key is not to tell ourselves to buck up.
The key is to do what we did with smoking: change the culture of what's acceptable, and for that to happen, as with smoking, changing the rules must lead the way.
Think of it as the parable of Ponsonby Rd. When it had a 50km/h speed limit, pedestrians were run down and killed, year after year. People believed it was their right to drive at the speed limit, so they did.
But since the limit was reduced to 40km/h, 10 years ago, the number of pedestrian injuries and deaths has collapsed.
The lesson: most drivers obey the rules. So we need rules that will save lives. Better driver training and more frequent driver testing, lower speeds and high levels of enforcement of the laws on dangerous driving.
And, alongside that, calling out all those who think it's their right to drive fast, and who think getting somewhere a minute or two more quickly is the priority for how we use the roads.
Platitudes that take the pressure off authorities resisting effective change are the last thing we need.