Drive through roads in local neighbourhoods, and you'll often see residents have put up signs – "please slow down" or "keep our children safe".

Parents understand, sometimes from heart-breaking experience, that speed kills children. It also curtails family life – no unaccompanied walks to the dairy, no scooter or bike to school.

Auckland Transport (AT) is making communities all over the region safer with its lower speeds limits, in force since July. We are now less likely to die or be seriously injured on the 700km of key roads with the reduced limits.

Slowing traffic by even 10km will give us a greater chance of walking away if hit by a car, whether we are a motorist, a cyclist or a pedestrian. And of course lowering speeds will actually prevent crashes in the first place.

Advertisement

As a public health medicine specialist, I know many in the health sector applaud AT's move to save hundreds of lives over the next 10 years through its safety programme. AT is to be congratulated for putting people's wellbeing and health above adding a few minutes to a car journey.

The pain and the cost of road injuries and deaths are felt disproportionately by Māori, compared with non-Māori.

People in poorer neighbourhoods, older people, children, pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists are also more likely to be seriously hurt or killed on our streets.

It's important that funding decisions and safety improvements prioritise those who experience the most harm to ensure a safe transport system for all. Last year we made some progress on reducing harm, but the number of deaths and serious injuries in Auckland are still well above where they were just 10 years ago.

Lowering speeds is essential to reduce this toll, the mounting injury-related treatment and rehabilitation costs, and to prevent the agony of affected families.

In public health, we know that parents are more willing to let their children walk or bike locally if there are fewer motorists speeding through rural outskirts, school zones or town centres.

The new speed signs mark an important milestone for AT's Vision Zero programme but relying on people to slow down is only half the safety programme, even backed up with more red-light cameras and greater enforcement.

We need to improve the streets as well, making them structurally safer.

Advertisement

Around 87 per cent of New Zealand's roads have a speed limit that is higher than the quality of the road can support, so it's no surprise that we have a history of carnage around the region.

People make mistakes going fast, but they also make mistakes at intersections, pedestrian crossings and on local streets.

The design of our streets can make human error less lethal and prevent serious injuries for pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists and motorists.

We need rumble strips, wider road shoulders, raised table crossings, and better intersection design – along with safer speeds.

Our children should have safe places to cross, cyclists should be physically distanced from cars and heavy traffic bypassed away from town centres.

That's why it is so disheartening to see Auckland Council's emergency budget pull funds from the infrastructure projects that are crucial to ensuring our streets are safe.

Advertisement

This is a backward step, and one we cannot afford with an increasing population and increasing pressure on our transport environment.

Funding for safety improvements is now less than 60 per cent of the original budget, at $63 million. Deferring the work to fix our roads will result in scores of preventable serious injuries and deaths over the next 10 years.

That the council is in a tight squeeze is unquestioned, but shelving safety work is also out of step with regional and national priorities. Safety is named as one of the key focuses in the mayor's letter of expectation.

Yet as the Road Safety Programme Business case states: "insufficient leadership and priority for road safety in policy and decision-making has prevented the full delivery of a safe system".

Road safety needs leadership, commitment and credibility. The AT financial team should not be reverting to the old roading blueprint when faced with a funding gap.

Aucklanders of all ages and in all communities got out and experienced safe and healthy streets during the coronavirus lockdown.

Advertisement

Families walking and riding bikes revealed the power of safety to transform how we get around.

Now in the rebuild it is essential that we move forward, keeping hold of this vision.

We can develop a transport system that is sustainable, carbon neutral and one that enables physical activity and social connection – one where health and well being are placed at the centre.

- Dr Michael Hale, public health medicine specialist, Auckland Regional Public Health Service