How much do defective vehicles contribute toour road toll? MATHEW DEARNALEY finds divided opinions.
Despite more traffic on our roads, the numbers of New Zealanders dying in crashes has reduced in the past decade.
This is small comfort, though, as our road toll remains stubbornly worse than that of comparable countries.
After pumping tens of millions of dollars into television "screamer adverts" to change driving behaviour - in what some critics call an exercise of diminishing returns - authorities are turning a blowtorch on unsafe vehicles.
A raft of 11 Government proposals to tighten vehicle safety standards has been welcomed by the Automobile Association and safety advocates. But independent car importers and dealers question whether the measures are excessive and impractical, if well-meaning.
Even safety researchers, while supporting the package, are concerned that the Government may have an uphill grind convincing the public of the merits of measures that could add $1000 to the cost of a used car.
A big credibility problem arises from what the researchers see as gross under-estimates of how many serious road crashes are caused by vehicle defects - drinking and speeding are much easier to identify.
The Government's own official figures cite vehicle defects as factors in just 33 fatal road crashes last year, 8.5 per cent of the total of 383.
That was substantially down on the 1999 total of 57 fatal crashes probably caused by factors such as worn tyres or defective brakes.
Causes are deduced by police investigators, whose main role is to secure prosecutions rather than to advance scientific knowledge.
But the other focus of the Government's safety drive is to reduce the impact of collisions, regardless of cause, given that 105 fatal crashes last year were head-ons causing 153 deaths.
That said, in some collisions - such as between a small car and a truck - no amount of frontal-impact protection like airbags or crumple zones, which some of the new proposals address, will save occupants.
How high is New Zealand's road toll compared with the past?
The toll was running on Friday at 255 deaths, slightly up on the 251 at the same time last year.
But Land Transport Safety Authority spokesman Craig Dowling says last year's death toll of 462 was the lowest for 36 years, "so the trend is good."
Last year was the first since 1965 there were fewer than 500 road deaths.
In 1998, 501 people died, but the toll edged up to 509 the next year.
The blackest year was 1973, when it jumped by 130 to 843 deaths.
For six years until 1990, the toll ran consistently above 700 deaths, with a peak of 795 in 1987.
Better roads, safer cars and improved driver attitudes have contributed to a steady decline since then, while the national traffic fleet has expanded by almost a quarter, to 2.5 million vehicles.
But how do we compare with other countries?
Road crashes claim about 400,000 lives worldwide every year.
Massey University researchers Terry Macpherson and Tony Lewis note that while crashes in developed countries fell in the 1970s and 1980s, the trend appears to have slowed as traffic inexorably increases.
Victoria in Australia, where annual road deaths tumbled 53 per cent from 796 to 378 between 1989 and 1994, has been a big influence on New Zealand safety authorities.
Experts are divided over the impact of shock-horror advertising aimed at curbing speed and drink-driving, a campaign that New Zealand has modelled on Victoria's at a yearly cost of about $7 million since 1995.
Australia's road toll overall remains impressively lower than ours per capita, down to 9.4 deaths for every 100,000 people in 1998, compared with New Zealand's 13.3.
Britain, with far more traffic but better roads, suffered just 6.1 deaths per 100,000, while Sweden was the safest country with a rate of six.
Only nine of 28 countries sharing data were worse than New Zealand. These included France, Spain and the United States, with South Korea and Portugal reporting the greatest excesses - 22.7 and 22.4 deaths respectively.
Why are safety experts divided over shock television advertising?
Researchers from Monash University in Melbourne estimate advertising here prevented 109 road deaths and 1029 serious injuries in the two years to mid-1997.
But a 1998 study by Mr Macpherson and Mr Lewis found little evidence of a causal link, before the advertising was backed by stronger enforcement measures such as "booze bus" alcohol-testing.
South Australian Government researchers last year backed the Massey finding. They accused their Melbourne colleagues of failing to take account of long-term improvements in road safety and changing economic circumstances, such as higher unemployment, which would have left drivers with less money for booze.
But Mr Dowling says his safety authority has absolute confidence in the Melbourne research, and he suggests higher unemployment could equally cause more road deaths by leaving drivers less able to maintain their vehicles.
Clive Matthew-Wilson, the editor of Auckland's Dog and Lemon Guide used-car manual, says the Government must concentrate on enforcement rather than squandering tens of millions of dollars on advertisements pitched at a hardcore of offenders who will not listen.
"There is no point preaching to adolescent youths who are incapable of perceiving cause and effect - they respond largely to peer pressure and enforcement."
He detects a shift in Government strategy to a much more practical emphasis on saving lives through building better roads and tightening vehicle standards.
What are the main causes of fatal crashes?
Alcohol overtook speed last year as the largest probable cause.
Drivers affected by alcohol contributed to 103, or 27 per cent, of fatal crashes compared with speed's toll of 88 (23 per cent).
Excessive speed for road conditions accounted for 124, or 28.6 per cent, of fatal crashes in 1999, at a cost of 153 lives, compared with drink-driving's toll of 100 smashes (23 per cent and 122 deaths).
The Accident Compensation Corporation suggests 52 lives a year could be saved if everyone slowed down just 4km/h, which would add less than three minutes to an Auckland-Hamilton trip.
The worst cause of injury crashes in 1999 (24.4 per cent) was a failure to give way or stop, whether at traffic lights, railway crossings, stop signs or for police on points duty.
Other prime killers in that year included failure to keep left (79 fatal crashes), road factors (63) and driver fatigue (55).
Using cellphones caused four fatal crashes, compared with five in which drivers were fumbling with radio-cassette players, cigarettes or glove boxes.
What is New Zealand doing to improve safety?
The Government wants to catch up by 2010 to where the safest countries are now.
It issued discussion documents last October and is analysing more than 800 submissions before revealing a plan of attack before the end of this year.
First, it must decide whether slashing the toll to no more than 295 deaths and 1940 injuries by 2010 is realistic, at annual costs ranging from $28 million to $350 million.
The lower figure depends on passing tougher laws and enforcing them, but the safety authority admits a proposal to cut the open-road speed limit to 90 km/h has been fiercely opposed by those making submissions.
Large-scale road building and improvements costing at least $3 billion by 2010 would have to be paid for with increases of up to 52 per cent in road-user charges, a vehicle licensing fee rise of $122, or 11.7c a litre in extra fuel tax.
But the Government is looking for payback of $1 billion off the estimated $3.1 billion annual "social cost" of road carnage - putting a monetary value on pain and suffering as well as more tangible costs such as hospitals beds and artificial limbs.
Transport Minister Mark Gosche says if nothing is done the social cost could balloon to $4.6 billion by 2010, given the growth in traffic volumes, and "speed creep."
His officials hope the vehicle safety plan, which is open for submissions until August 31, will contribute about 18 per cent of the expected reduction in social cost.
What does the plan entail?
First up is a requirement for all passenger vehicles entering the country to have frontal-impact features such as crumple zones, airbags and advanced seatbelts.
This would bar Japanese cars made before 1994, and has been condemned by the Independent Motor Vehicle Dealers' Association as a backdoor way of introducing a ban advocated by new car importers on vehicles older than seven years.
Safety authority figures show that such a proposal would have excluded up to 120,000 used car imports last year.
Other proposals include the compulsory replacement of used airbags, safer seatbelts and higher standards for tyres and brake parts when vehicles are first registered in New Zealand.
What were the main "vehicle factors" cited by police for serious crashes?
Worn tyres were the biggest culprit, accounting for 15 fatal crashes, with blowouts or punctures blamed for a further four.
Vehicle fires were blamed for 10 crashes, with excessive or insecure loads responsible for nine and brake failures for seven.
Mechanical failure caused just one fatal crash, and vehicle body or chassis problems caused four.
Steering failures accounted for 20 injury accidents, but no deaths.
That doesn't sound too bad. So why worry about vehicle standards?
Even 33 fatal crashes - a heartening improvement on the 1999 total of 57 blamed on vehicle defects - are 33 too many for the authority.
But Mr Dowling agrees with independent researchers that the contribution of vehicle defects to crashes is "very much understated."
"The police out there aren't mechanics and we rely on their impressions of the crash at the time, along with witness statements."
Mr Matthew-Wilson believes vehicle faults are responsible for about 25 per cent of fatal crashes.
Veteran road safety researcher Dr John Bailey says his extensive study of coroners' reports suggests vehicle and road factors feature in up to 40 per cent of serious crashes.
But he says about 40 per cent of cars involved in drink-drive fatalities also happen to be more than 15 years old.
Car Safety Trust managing director Gordon McKeown says drivers stand to lose their insurance cover if they own up to mechanical failings, so vehicle factors are "grossly under-reported."
His organisation is calling for an independent crash investigation agency, financed by the Government, insurance companies and community trusts.
Mr Dowling says the authority is looking at the idea, but the police national road safety manager, Superintendent Steve Fitzgerald, says the force now has about 40 trained crash analysts.
They investigate all serious crashes and refer every vehicle involved to skilled outside agencies such as Vehicle Testing New Zealand for analysis.
What do car dealers think of the plan?
Independent dealers are all for having safer vehicles, says association chief executive David Lynn, but they feel border testing is already rigorous enough. He believes the Government has not fully investigated the availability of new airbags and webbing-clamp type seatbelts that it is considering making mandatory when older equipment needs replacing.
And he fears that likely price rises for used vehicles will force poorer people to keep older models on the roads longer.
* The safety proposals are available from the authority website or order a copy by phoning 0800 699-000 between 8 am and 5 pm, Monday to Friday.
Feature: Cutting the road toll
Are you part of the dying race?
Take an intersection safety test
LTSA: Road toll update
Massey University: Effectiveness of safety advertising
How much do defective vehicles contribute toour road toll? MATHEW DEARNALEY finds divided opinions.