Economy, cheap fuel, bikes and trucks drive high road toll

The government needs to fix our roads, move freight onto rail, make it harder to get a motorbike licence and target high risk drivers, says the car review website

Editor and road safety campaigner, Clive Matthew-Wilson, says:

“Multiple studies have shown that the road toll falls during recessions and rises during better economic times. Scientists believe that an active economy means that the highest risk drivers have more money to buy petrol and make long trips. People become less cautious in their behaviour. When the economy falls, people have less money for fuel and become more cautious. So, the road toll goes up and down with the economy. It sounds crazy, but it’s true.”


Distracted driving demands police attention

The American National Safety Council estimates 26% of all traffic crashes involve drivers using cellphones.

Matthew-Wilson is concerned that the police pay little attention to drivers using cellphones.

“In a recent study, 31% of New Zealand parents admitted having had an accident or a near miss (or knowing someone who has) due to distracted driving, with mobile phone use a major factor. Yet, the police barely enforce the law banning the use of handheld cellphones in cars. Contrast this with the rigid police 5km/h enforcement of the speed limits. It simply doesn’t make sense.”


Boy racers: political fodder

Matthew-Wilson says the reason the police and politicians target groups such as boy racers, while largely ignoring cellphone use, is simply politics.

“It’s quite simple: mobile phone users are more likely to be voters, while boy racers are not.”

Matthew-Wilson says the boy racer phenomenon in the early twenty-first century, which gave rise to legislation allowing the government to crush the cars of offenders, was a classic example of politicians using road safety issues for political gain.

“The simple facts are: in their worst year (2007), boy racers were responsible for nine deaths, and 91 injuries. By comparison, in 2014, senior road users (75 years and over) accounted for 32 deaths and 478 injuries.”

“The government of the time gained a huge number of votes by targeting boy racers, a group that wasn’t actually a major cause of road deaths. Worse, the government conveniently ignored groups that were a far higher risk. The public was deliberately misinformed.”



“If you ask the average voter the major cause of road deaths, they’d probably say: ‘illegal speeding’. In fact, the reverse is true. About 80% of the road toll occurs below, not above, the speed limit. Of the 20% of accidents that occur above the speed limit, almost all are caused by either yobbos, impaired drivers or outlaw motorcyclists. In terms of fatal accidents, just 12% are caused by speed alone.”

A 2009 AA analysis of fatal accidents stated:

“government advertising suggests you should be grateful to receive a speeding ticket because it will save your life. In fact, exceeding speed limits aren’t a major issue. Police surveying has found that even the top 15% of open-road speeders average under the 110km/h ticketing threshold.”  

Matthew-Wilson adds:

“The government and the police deliberately misrepresent reality by defining speeding as: ‘driving too fast for the conditions’. So, any accident where someone loses control is often defined as a speeding accident, even though the driver may have been well below the speed limit.”

“Many times, accidents that have been blamed on speed could just as easily be blamed on distraction, fatigue, poor road design, slipperly conditions, lack of safety barriers or lack of proven road safety technologies such as Electronic Stability Control. Yet the police generally blame speed alone when someone loses control.”

“This ongoing obsession with trying to lower the road toll by changing behaviour is one of the reasons the road toll is so high. Yet there are proven and simple ways of saving lives. In the 1980s, the Auckland harbour bridge used to suffer one serious road accident every week. After a concrete barrier was installed down the middle, most of the serious accidents stopped immediately. There wasn’t one less idiot or drunk driver, yet the accidents stopped, simply because the road was changed in a way that prevented mistakes from becoming fatalities.”


Trucks pose danger

Matthew-Wilson says the endless publicity about speeding takes the attention away from other major causes of road deaths.

“For example, 20% of the road toll involves trucks. According to the government’s own studies, many of these trucks don’t need to be driving our main roads. Trucks are there because the government’s transport policy is effectively run by the trucking industry. That’s why the government is so quick to build new truck-friendly roads and so slow to fund rail. The facts state that rail is both vastly more efficient and vastly better from a road safety perspective.”

“The government is predicting that freight across New Zealand's roads is going to increase by 78% in the next 25 years. This, inevitably, will mean even more fatal crashes.”

Matthew-Wilson says the government’s truck-friendly policies also hold up urgent roading upgrades.

“Many fatalities involve a driver either colliding with an oncoming vehicle, or running off the road. A study by Monash University of the effectiveness of roadside fencing and median barriers concluded that: “reductions of up to 90% in death and serious injury can be achieved, with no evidence of increased road trauma for motorcyclists.”

“Truck drivers are often under heavy pressure from management to deliver loads on time, even though this forces them to work long hours and to drive in a potentially unsafe manner. When a safety improvement slows down truck drivers, their industry leaders complain bitterly to the government, and the government listens. That's why the government would often rather build a new, wider road than fix an existing road, even though the existing road could often be fixed for a fraction of the price.” 

“Funding the rail network on the same basis as the state highways would enable Kiwirail – and other companies – to utilise rail to move non-perishable goods speedily and cheaply, as well as reducing the number of trucks on the road.


Older bikers a major risk

Matthew-Wilson believes older motorcyclists should face far tougher licence tests.

“In both 2015 (52) and 2016 (50), over 50 motorcyclists were killed on the country's roads. A large majority of those killed were aged between 40-59.

Matthew-Wilson is also concerned that the government has spent $3.5 million on motorcycle training, when it is widely accepted internationally that advanced training for motorcyclists has little or no effect on the number of crashes. 

“This has been demonstrated in study after study, and the road toll speaks for itself.”  


Seatbelts & cellphones major issues

Matthew-Wilson says that, rather than focusing mainly on speed, the police should instead refocus on critical issues, such drivers using cellphones and people not wearing seatbelts.

Matthew-Wilson says scary ad campaigns are useless.

“Let me be perfectly clear: almost every credible study ever done has concluded that road safety ads don’t work.”

Instead of fining drivers who use handheld cellphones, Matthew-Wilson believes the police should have the power to permanently seize cellphones being used by drivers while a vehicle is in motion.

“The police already have the power to seize vehicles that are being used dangerously; why not cellphones as well?”

Matthew-Wilson is equally concerned at the number of people not wearing seatbelts.

“100 of the people who died on our roads last year were not wearing seatbelts. That’s just insane. Rather than fining drivers, which doesn't work with the highest risk offenders, the police should first issue several warnings to people not wearing seatbelts. After several warnings, the police should have the power to temporarily impound vehicles where seatbelts are not in use. This would modify behaviour very quickly, I think.”