New research into the country's appalling road toll figures has blamed alcohol and drivers on learner licences for a spike in crash deaths.
The findings identify concerns about the falling number of alcohol checkpoints being carried out by police and problems with drivers progressing to a restricted license.
A just-published study, involving researchers from the Ministry of Transport and Otago and Canterbury universities, picked apart crash data over the past decade.
It asked why declining crash rates began to reverse in 2013, with fatal crash numbers rising 2 per cent each of the following three years.
The 376 deaths recorded in 2018 were up nearly 50 per cent on 2013's toll of 253. Last year 353 motorists lost their lives on our roads.
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Study leader Dr Darren Walton said the Ministry of Transport and the NZ Transport Agency commissioned several reports to investigate the trend. But none could pin the rising toll to usual factors like shifts in travel, employment or economic growth.
"We took a new approach using a different form of analysis."
Using the Crash Analysis System – a collation of police reports for all fatal and injury crashes – researchers modelled 21 separate factors, ranging from the sex and age of drivers, to the time of crashes and the vehicles, roads and speeds involved.
Three big factors jumped out: alcohol, learner licences, and a regional spate in Auckland.
Their findings suggested that, over the 2014 to 2017 period, the odds of alcohol being a factor in a fatal crash shot up by about 40 per cent.
This was despite a drop over that time in reported alcohol-related driving and a 2014 law change that lowered the adult alcohol limit from 80mg to 50mg.
Based on the findings, the researchers suggested something had changed in policing practices which meant fewer detections were occurring, and which allowed for a higher likelihood of alcohol being a factor in crashes.
Meanwhile, an increase in crashes involving drivers with learner licences likely reflected a change in the way drivers were graduating through the system, with a "bottleneck" between those on their learner and restricted licenses.
Despite a recent law change lowering the expiry date from a maximum of 10 to five years, the researchers believed many learner drivers were simply taking longer to obtain a restricted licence, and thus had higher odds of appearing in serious crash statistics.
Both of those trends were more pronounced in Auckland, something they found might partly be explained by local population growth.
The researchers were left with several lingering questions about the influence and resourcing of police.
"Have learner licence holders changed their perceptions of the likelihood of being caught and ticketed for a minor $100 fine?
"It is possible that New Zealand's successful road safety initiatives of the past have been undermined by reduced levels of enforcement and an unexpected outcome from the graduated driving licence system."
Walton told the Herald the increasing road toll couldn't be put down to failing infrastructure.
"First, the effect is too large. Second, we have invested over $13b since 2013 to improve the network, only to get a worse outcome from a road safety perspective."
'Not a good result'
Automobile Association road safety spokesman Dylan Thomsen wasn't surprised to see alcohol highlighted as a factor – and was concerned that lowering the breath alcohol limit hadn't made the difference hoped for.
"There are a few crucial things at play. One is the number of alcohol checkpoints being done by police, and that has dropped quite substantially. There were three million checkpoints in 2013, and that has fallen to less than two million a year over recent years.
"We think that is likely to be having an impact on people's perceptions over whether they're likely to get caught, and we want to see the number of those checkpoints raised back up again."
The data about learner drivers also raised issues about people not progressing through the licensing system, Thomsen said.
"The Government really needs to look at figuring out how it's going to encourage those people to take the next step."
In a statement, police said they were committed to removing intoxicated drivers from the road.
"We use evidence-based intelligence to deploy our staff; to locations at times we know pose the most risk of impaired drivers. Police also takes an anytime anywhere approach to any driver stopped by Police, meaning any person stopped by Police could expect to undergo a breath alcohol screening test.
"Over the recent years to 2018 the number of breath screening tests had been trending downwards. However, as part of Police's road safety partnership with the NZ Transport Agency, it was agreed to increase the number of Police breath screening tests.
"From 2018 to 2019 the number of breath screening tests completed by Police increased by approximately 250,000 to 1.67 million in 2019. We expect this number to increase again in 2020."
There were four main behaviours that contributed to death and serious injury on our roads, police said.
"People not wearing seatbelts, people driving impaired by fatigue, drugs, or alcohol, people driving distracted – including by mobile phones – and drivers travelling too fast for the conditions.
"This is where we focus our prevention and enforcement activities."
The study comes as the Government last month released its new road safety strategy, which aimed to nearly halve rates of death and serious injury over the next decade, with a focus on speed, vehicle and work-related safety, system management and safer choices and behaviour.
Police will get more funding as part of a new strategy, which could lead to more dedicated road policing and an increase in safety cameras.
Associate Minister of Transport Julie Anne Genter said the number of people being killed on our roads increased for the first time in decades from 2013 to 2018.
"Last year we saw a dip in those numbers. This January, 18 people lost their lives on our roads, one of lowest figures since records began in 1965.
"It's good we're starting to see fewer deaths on New Zealand roads - our roads should be safe for everyone.
"When we came into office the number of people being killed on our roads was increasing for the first time in over 20 years.
"We took immediate action and created a new $1.4 billion programme to upgrade over 3300km of our most dangerous roads over three years. This investment has help fast-track upgrades to dangerous roads like SH1 in Dome Valley north of Auckland, with low-cost improvements like median barriers and safer passing lanes.
Under the last government funding for road Police was frozen, Genter said, forcing cuts in the number of dedicated Road Police as well as alcohol breath tests.
"When we came into government we boosted funding for Road Police and increased Police numbers to help tackle the rising number of deaths we were seeing.
"Last year I announced plans to review the graduated driver licensing regime to address concerns about young drivers not progressing onto their restricted and full licenses."
Grieving family wants harsher penalties for drink driving
A grieving relative of a mother and baby killed by a recidivist drink-driver wants a zero-tolerance approach to drink driving and harsher penalties for convicted drivers.
Kaiwaka mother Janiah Fairburn, 20, and her 2-year-old daughter, Azarliyah, were killed when a drunk driver slammed head-on into their car on March 30 last year.
Fairburn's partner, Henare Hadfield, 20, suffered broken ribs and a punctured lung and their 1-year-old son, Te Tairawhiti Hadfield, suffered a fractured neck and was treated at Starship children's hospital.
The drunk driver, 19-year old Aizaeah Kori-Lee Tarawa was sentenced to four years and three months on two charges of driving with an excess breath alcohol level causing death and a two-year, concurrent sentence for two charges of excess breath alcohol causing injury.
Fairburn's aunty Renae Paikea called for a zero-tolerance approach to driving under the influence.
"In my eyes, when you get in the car under the influence, when you're drinking and driving, it's pre-meditated murder," she said.
"It's not an accident in my eyes. They know they're going to drink, they know they picked up those keys and they chose to drove."
Anyone convicted with driving under the influence should not retain their license, she said.
"I think there should be no chances given to them.
"You know you're going to drive, there's other people on the road, even if you think you're okay, what are you to know about the other driver?"
She has started a petition calling for harsher penalties for those who get behind the wheel while intoxicated and kill others.
"If it could save another family feeling what we felt...it still feels raw and it's coming up to a year."
Paikea knows of another family who lost a loved one to a drink driver, who was sentenced to home detention.
"We got a slap in the face and that family got a punch and a kick in the face. It's not fair, we deal with it for a lifetime."