What makes driving safer? As holidaymakers hit the highways after another grim annual road toll, Simon Wilson reports on the evidence for what really works in the second of a five-part series.
OPINION: Are drivers to blame for crashes? In one sense, obviously yes. In most crashes, at least one driver did something wrong.
Racing legend Greg Murphy is one of many who say the solution to our high rates of death and serious injury on the roads is driver education.
"Stop blaming the roads and the speed limits," he said last summer, "and start taking driver responsibility, training and testing seriously."
Is he right? In the four years to 2018, the number of high school students killed or seriously injured on the roads increased by 89 per cent. But it didn't become easier to get a licence in that time, so is there a causal relationship?
Another way to ask the question is this: Do good drivers have fewer crashes?
It's obvious enough that if you've been trained what to do when you need to react suddenly, and you've had experience to back the training, you have a better chance of not crashing. But the issue is more complicated than that.
For one thing, most of us think we're good drivers. The problem is all the other idiots on the road.
And if you're a good driver, what do you hear when they say, "Bad driving is the problem, not speed"? That it doesn't matter if you speed?
Maybe genuinely good drivers take more risks. Highly skilled people often do that: they're confident of their own ability, sometimes overconfident. We've all seen the best sailors in the world capsize their boats.
Perhaps most of us drive at a similar risk level, relative to our ability. We're all taking risks.
The reality is, all drivers make mistakes. You're more tired than you think, you're looking the wrong way when a car pulls out, you're going too fast around the corner.
We want drivers to make fewer mistakes and good training is valuable for that. But we can't just rely on drivers to get better. We also need our roads, cars and road rules designed to make them less likely to cause a crash, and to make crashes less serious when they do happen.
This is the key question at the heart of Vision Zero: How do we limit the damage when a driver makes a mistake?
Vision Zero is a Swedish idea and has been widely adopted in the US, Europe, most Australian states, our own national agencies Waka Kotahi and the Ministry of Transport, which both call it Road to Zero, and by Auckland Transport.
One element is road design, which this series will cover on Thursday and Friday. Another is speed: many open roads are now 80km/h, not 100km/h, and speeds in many built-up areas have also been lowered.
The relationship between speed and safety is complex and contentious. Many studies identify speed as a causal factor in crashes; many more say it's usually not.
The Dog and Lemon Guide's Matthew Clive-Wilson believes "the anti-speeding campaign is based on phony science". Even when speed is involved in a crash, he says, factors like driver impairment and lack of skill are likely to be more important.
The AA, meanwhile, has opposed AT's Vision Zero programme to lower speed limits on some of Auckland's roads.
It's even been said that Vision Zero has failed because deaths and serious injuries are up. "Road deaths in Auckland have risen sharply in the first year that speeds were lowered as part of a bold new road safety vision to drastically reduce fatalities," declared a story in this paper in September.
But the failure wasn't down to Vision Zero. On the 600km of roads where AT lowered the speed limit in 2020, there has been a 67 per cent reduction in fatalities. Unfortunately, the death rate went up across the others.
AT is now evaluating public feedback on a second tranche of lower speeds, including many roads near schools, and in early 2022 will begin consultation on a third tranche.
One undisputed fact about speed is that when it's involved in a crash, the outcome will probably be worse. Australian research shows that a collision at 60km/h has a 95 per cent chance of causing death. At 40km/h, it drops to 32 per cent. American research suggests that each 1 one per cent increase in speed makes it 3-4 per cent more likely you will die.
AT's chief executive Shane Ellison: "The evidence tells us that the faster you go, the more likely you are to make an error, and the heavier the consequences that people pay."
Remember this. When your body hits something, even if it's an airbag, everything inside you keeps moving forward. Your brain collides with your skull, your other internal organs smash up against your rib cage. Speeding puts everyone at greater risk, however good a driver you think you are.
What makes driving safer? A Herald summer series.