roadside memorial

6 May 2019 Kate Palmer

Leading safety expert Dr Fergus Tate discusses what people can do to reduce the risk for themselves and other road users.

Some areas of New Zealand are on target to have the worst road toll in many years. It’s easy to blame the state of New Zealand’s roads; state highways and local roads present very real road safety challenges for all modes of transport.

Around 40 % of our state highway network has a two-star safety rating. A two-star road is undivided, has poor alignment, features hazards such as narrow or unsealed shoulders, or has unforgiving roadside objects such as deep ditches, trees and concrete poles.

Simply put, many of our roads are not safe at speeds of 100km or more, yet people frequently exceed this. What’s more, a crash at the posted speed limit in this environment will usually be fatal.

Over half of road deaths, and nearly three quarters of serious injuries are caused by system failures on our roads. In other words, they are unforgiving of human error.

The cost to fix this is prohibitive -  the reality is that we have a lot of roads and a relatively low population base to fund network improvements. There are 83,000 kilometres of local roads and around 11,000 kilometres of state highway throughout New Zealand and the length of road per person in New Zealand is one of the highest in the world.

It’s been suggested that it could cost between $5billion and $10billion dollars to improve the network so, even with all the will in the world, this isn’t going to happen any time soon.

We simply cannot afford to engineer our way out of this.

Roads don’t cause crashes, human error does.  Speed, alcohol, failing to give way or stop and inattention continue to be the main contributing factors in fatal and serious injury crashes.

I often hear people blame a number of factors on crashes, but the analysis of fatal and serious injury crashes shows that:

  • Speed continues to be is a major contributing factor. In 2016, in appropriate speed contributed to 21% of deaths and serious injuries in road crashes.
  • Fatigue has an impact. In 2016 fatigue was identified as a contributing factor in 28 fatal crashes, 119 serious injury crashes and 438 minor injury crashes.
  • Up to 30% of car crash fatalities involved people not wearing a seatbelt.

On top of this, the age and technology standards of a vehicle also contribute to whether or not there is an injury or fatality as a result of a crash. Last year 380 people died and more than 2,000 were seriously injured on our roads. What if the entire population of a town like Taihape was killed and/or seriously injured by an avoidable event? There would be understandable outrage.

Serious injuries and fatalities cause trauma for a lot of people and impact the whole of society.  The effect of less trauma on our roads would be wide-felt. Why wouldn’t we do everything we can to protect ourselves and others on our roads?

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About: Dr Fergus Tate is Technical Director - Transport. He is widely acknowledged to be a leading expert in road safety in New Zealand and has applied his expertise to some of the most innovative road safety projects in New Zealand. These include  the introduction of the New Zealand Road Assessment Programmes KiwiRAP and road Infrastructure Risk Rating (IRR), as well as Rural Intersection Active Warning Systems (RIAWS) and out of context curves.