We're trying to have a serious debate about road safety in this country. We need to, because the rates of deaths and serious injury are both rising sharply.
In each of the last two years, almost 380 people have died on our roads. That's a jump up from 253, just six years ago. Around 50 per cent more.
It's not natural, or inevitable: it's not happening in many comparable countries and it doesn't need to be happening here. Road deaths in New Zealand peaked in 1987 and were falling, very consistently, until 2013. Then they started to rise again.
Why is it happening? If the answer was easy we could fix the problem easily. But it's not. There are lots of reasons. One thing is for sure, though: as we debate the merits of speed limits, better driver education, more enforcement, better road design, safer cars and more, the last thing we need – the very last thing – are people saying just forget about it, we're fine as we are, we all love our cars and there's nothing we can do.
But that, sickeningly, is what we've been getting from one or two high-profile radio presenters.
People are dying. Families are being destroyed, first responders and hospital workers are being put through horror after horror and it does not need to happen. If you don't grasp this, if you don't have something useful to contribute to the debate about how to make our roads safer, how about just buttoning it. Otherwise, what you're doing is making the nightmare worse.
Then there are those who would distract us from the safety debate with claims that slower speeds will slow the economy. That argument has been made by National leader Simon Bridges, National transport spokesperson Paul Goldsmith and truckies' advocate Nick Leggett.
The subject here is how to reduce misery. Appalling, unacceptable, avoidable misery. Is it really the time to be telling us, in effect, to get out of the way and let the trucks speed through?
Goldsmith has also said, "We all want safer roads, but I don't buy that a majority of New Zealanders want Julie-Anne Genter [the associate transport minister] to cycle from Kaitaia to Bluff, putting a line through every 100km/h sign she sees along the way."
Very funny. Also wrong. The Transport Agency's map of safer speeds shows State Highway One, the presumed route Goldsmith had in mind, remaining at 100km/h for almost its entire length. But hey, jokes.
The Government has announced a programme to address the high and still-rising rate of deaths and serious injuries on our roads. I don't know if they've got it all right. I doubt they're spending enough on fixing bad roads, I think we need far more roadside enforcement and better driver education too, and it may be some of their other calculations are wrong.
But it's not wrong of them to take this seriously. We need a big, life-saving campaign, and we need a big, constructive debate about what it should involve.
Sneering at road safety advocates for "hating" cars and roads, as Simon Bridges used to routinely do in Parliament about Genter, and as some radio presenters and others do today, has no place in it.
It's such a ridiculous thing to say. And endlessly repeating claims that are demonstrably not true doesn't help either. What are those claims? Here are six of them: six myths about road safety that keep derailing the debate.
The Government wants to lower speed limits instead of fixing bad roads
It's surprising how commonly this comes up, considering that when the Government announced its road-safety programme last year, it was all adding safety features to roads. Speed barely got a mention.
The Government is spending $4.3 billion over the four years to 2021 on road safety. Much of that money will go on features like median barriers and rumble strips. Known high-risk areas are targeted, as you'd expect. Many are in the country: nearly half of all fatalities are on open-road highways. Many other danger spots are in cities, especially at intersections.
The previous Government also had a safety plan, which focused much more on motorways. And it's true that motorways are the safest roads to drive on. Very few fatal crashes occur on a motorway.
But it doesn't follow that all dangerous roads should be turned into motorways. That's not possible. They need to be made safer, without necessarily becoming a different kind of road.
Nor is it true that motorway building has stopped. As the Herald explained very well just a few weeks ago, there is a busy motorway-building programme underway all round greater Auckland, and elsewhere. The largest single part of the Government's transport spend – $5.7 billion – is devoted to state highways, most of it motorways.
The key to safer roads is better driver education
It's true our driver education should be better. In my view, new drivers should be taught to a higher standard. When they reach the legal age, young people should get free driver education, so no one is driving without having been taught well. All of us should have to renew our licences every 10 years. Perhaps visiting drivers should be tested too. It would all help.
But education is not the central issue. The key insight to road safety is that we all make mistakes. Even the best drivers make mistakes. Even Greg Murphy: even when he's concentrating because his life and the winning of the race depend on it, the Murph sometimes makes mistakes.
So an effective road-safety strategy can't just rely on education. It has to include better enforcement, safer cars, better road and intersection design, especially including physical barriers. Why doesn't State Highway One, for starters, have a simple wire median barrier down its entire length?
And slower speeds are critical too.
Slower speeds don't work
Slower speeds do work. A pedestrian hit by a vehicle travelling at 50km/h is up to five times more likely to die than one hit at 30km/h. And bear this in mind: a quarter of the people killed in road crashes last year were not in a car. They were hit by a car.
The World Health Organization says every 1km/h drop in speed typically leads to 4-5 per cent fewer deaths. There's a lot of data like that, and it all points to the same thing. The faster you go, the greater the chance of serious injury and death.
The Government wants to have slower speeds everywhere
Even a quick glance at the Transport Agency's interactive maps, as published in the Herald, reveal this is not true. Those maps show which roads the agency believes should be given lower speed limits. The Government is yet to decide how much of that to adopt.
State Highway One, as mentioned, remains largely untouched. Other state highways also retain long stretches of 100km/h open road. But in the trouble spots and in the network of back roads, as a rule, lower speed limits would prevail.
The key change, really, would be that instead of all roads being lumped into either the 100km/h open road category or a blanket restricted speed zone for urban areas, speed limits would be set much more specifically for each road.
It's hard to think what the objection to having safe speeds calculated for each road would be.
Slower speeds will harm the economy
Goldsmith has mused about freight taking longer to reach its destination, resulting in fewer sales, less money going round in the economy, and therefore less tax, leading to less money available to health services and roadworks ... and so on.
The first thing to say about this is that the existing speed limits are not some golden mean, a set of numbers that delivers the optimum balance of economic and social objectives. They've developed ad hoc in response to political pressures, vehicle and road designs, and public views about what we can and should do.
As a thought experiment, and looking only at economic factors, what would happen if we, say, halved the speed limit on the open road? Far fewer crashes, thus much less lost productivity. Far more capacity in the health system to deal with other health issues, and heaven knows we have enough of them. Road freight might become uneconomic, but perhaps rail would take up the slack and the net economic benefits might be just fine.
Or, what if we allowed freight trucks to go half as fast again? The reverse of all those things would occur, but your container of imports would get from Auckland to Palmerston North a lot faster. You can also make a good argument that crashes help the economy, because the more there are, the more jobs you create, and that raises the GDP.
Two points out of this. First, without doing a pretty complex analysis, we obviously don't know what the net economic benefit of raising or lowering speed limits might be.
Second, it's nuts to reduce this issue to economic imperatives. It's a pretty good example of the value of a Wellbeing Budget, really. Everybody understands we have to factor the human cost into our road rules. Economic values don't trump other values: they all have to sit alongside each other.
There will always be a "road toll"
The rates of deaths and serious injuries on our roads are not static, inevitable facts of life. For 30 years they were falling and now they're rising sharply. We shouldn't be adjusting our understanding of what's normal, so we can keep on behaving as we did before.
Those statistics tell us we need to change our behaviour. New Zealanders are addicted to cars? Really? That makes it sound like a national crisis.
How about this. We love the independence and flexibility we get from driving ourselves around, and a lot of people love their cars, full stop. But we also love being alive, and not losing loved ones, and we really don't want to cause grief to anyone. So we wish there were some better safeguards around how we all use our cars, and the roads, for the good of all.
Isn't that a closer description of who we are?
And there's another thing: the language we use to talk about road safety. They're not "accidents", they're crashes with cause and effect and, overwhelmingly, they could have been avoided.
And it's not a "road toll", because a toll is a price you have to pay for using something. We shouldn't be thinking deaths are the price we have to pay for using the roads – but actually, that is how we think about it. We think a "road toll" is inevitable.
So here's the question, on behalf of everyone who has died on the roads, and those who have been seriously injured, and all their loved ones, all their dependents and friends, and all the first responders and their loved ones, and the doctors and nurses, and the rehabilitation staff and all the other carers who have to live every day with the consequences of our thinking it's inevitable: what shall we do, to stop thinking like that?