Road safety – time to get serious

Road safety – time to get serious

Time for New Zealand drivers to get serious about road safety. I have the solutions, so don’t panic. It should have been clear to anyone with half a brain and it should have been done 40 years ago. No one had the vision or political will. They still don’t, so it’s up to me to rant and rave.


First, let’s go back in time. To November 26th 1979 to be precise. At some point or another, I would have had to admit that I’m not a native of these shores. Therefore I would have received the usual defensive brickbats, so let’s get that out of the way. I arrived here from “Mother England” in 1979. So I am really a Kiwi now. But if I describe New Zealand drivers in general as sloppy, selfish, discourteous and aggressive, I am actually acting with restraint. So if anyone wants to trot out the “Whingeing Pom” label, try to understand that it’s because 1. I care and 2. It’s actually the truth.

The initial shock

On November 26th 1979, I had just stepped off a ‘plane and surfaced after a weekend recovering from jet lag. It was Monday morning and someone lent me a pushbike to go to the shops. Getting there without dying a horrible death was an achievement in itself. I made the fundamental error of assuming that the road safety of a pushbike rider actually mattered. I rode the return journey, ashen faced and staying well on the footpath, which for me was against the law but preferable to viewing the underside of a bus. The overriding impression scarred on my memory was that of aggression and disregard for others. It was a shock, having been accustomed to taking pride in considering other road users. In following a set of road safety rules that were largely accepted by consensus. And (significantly) extending something called courtesy to all other road users.

To this day, despite some improvements in driving behaviour, (we’re not talking much), those initial impressions still represent a yawning gulf between the road safety habits of New Zealand drivers and every other industrialised country on the planet. Yet the authorities continue to maintain a short sighted, short term negative focus on alcohol and speed. Oh, and lately, we’ve moved on to “Intersections”. Ye gods!

Have alcohol and speed had their day?

road safetySure alcohol and speed kill. So does pulling out in front of another vehicle. What a revelations these are! If we spend millions of dollars telling qualified drivers how to pull out of a junction, doesn’t it tell us there’s something far more fundamental wrong? Speed, alcohol and junction behaviours are simply the tip of a very large road safety attitude iceberg. Why do we keep sawing away at the tip of that iceberg? We are treating the effects, not the causes. A bit of creativity is required.

We spend a good part of our lives hearing doleful police officers telling us that the last weekend was “the worst” or (for what it’s worth), “the second worst on record” for fatal accidents. Yet no one really seems to know what to do. If it’s not alcohol or speed, it’s always down to “stupidity” or “speed” or “inattention”. How simplistic is that? Is it any wonder that we focus on trite and ineffective measures?

Then we get the brief moments of public hysteria every time a “boy racer” manages to take out an innocent bystander and 3 of his friends. The hysteria usually revolves around the skills of armchair critics and their ridiculous “single solution” measures, like “crushing their cars”. This is now actually happening, how sad. This is a road safety solution born of deep frustration and the need for personal revenge. All very emotionally appealing, but it is not treating the core problem. Crushing cars only makes the “fair majority”, (us), look worse than the perpetrators. What kind of road safety message does that send? That we are hysterical and ineffectual mentors and that the law exists in the gutter. Let’s bring back hanging while we are at it. The depressing thing is that there are many people who would blindly agree to that too, despite it being ineffective as a deterrent. It’s not about revenge, folks, it’s about a decent society.

What depresses me is the waste of our taxes treating the effects, while little or nothing is done to treat the causes of poor road safety.

Questions – current state of road safety

It’s not a single solution and it’s not new, but to illustrate the problem, I want to ask a few blunt questions. No particular order. I hope by then it might be somewhat self explanatory:

1. Why can 15 year olds drive cars? I don’t care about curfews and supervisors. I don’t care that children are maturing quicker. A 15 year old behind the wheel is a concept that I cannot comprehend. Their brains are still growing and so are they. What was anyone thinking to have let this happen?

2. Why is it so easy to pass the driving test? I don’t care if the silly examination body gets up in arms. It’s pathetic how easy it is. Having the right to propel a large steel box at 100 kph has to be a privilege given only to people who can show they are competent. That they have some sort of maturity, have awareness of what’s going on around them and can respond accordingly. If that means being failed a few times, all well and good. My mother, bless her, failed the test 3 times and gave up trying. She deserved to fail. I’m sorry, but her driving was just about acceptable until she got under pressure. The examiners were able to find this out and do their jobs They kept her off the road. It may have saved her life and others. She would have passed first time in New Zealand, with a pat on the back and a few words of encouragement.

3. Why do people drive in the right lane of motorways at 70 kph? No wonder we therefore tolerate people weaving in and out and overtaking on the left, which is hideous.

4. Why, when I am waiting to turn right at a T junction, does the next driver arriving behind me and wanting to turn left, push half their car in front of my line of vision, thereby hijacking the sole right to view the road and denying me any chance of making a safe decision? Chances are, they are driving an urban 4WD, which can see over me and has the same effect as parking a potting shed next to me. I’ll tell you the answer: It’s because they don’t understand the first thing about courtesy and have no motive to use it.

5. Why is it prudent to wait a few seconds when the red light turns green? Because you know that there is about a 1 in 5 chance that some murderer will be streaking across your path from the right, having broken a red. Running red lights must be the single most reckless behaviour on the road. In my book, knowingly doing it should be a criminal offence and it should be punishable by very large fines or loss of licence.

6. Why is the squealing of tyres somehow normal and acceptable? Every day on New Zealand roads is like being in a Steve McQueen car chase. It used to alarm me, because in my past life, squealing tyres were a very, very rare event. The frequency of occurence was perhaps measured in years, and it was often followed by a bang. Losing traction deliberately is an offence called loss of control of a motor vehicle. It appears to go largely unpunished, unless it’s a spotty youth doing doughnuts in an industrial cul de sac, which is probably not going to hurt anyone. If I squeal my tyres, I expect to get a ticket in Queen St. I mean that.

7. Why do 20% of drivers believe they are plainly visible driving without lights in heavy rain or 30 minutes into dusk? I have measured this statistic. I was being generous.

8. Why do 20% of drivers only use indicators the moment before they turn into the road you want to exit, or not at all?

9. Why do fat middle aged males in 6 cylinder company vehicles monster and intimidate other drivers and believe they are so damned important?

10. Why do we have thousands of people on the road who drive so badly and so slowly and who are oblivious of what goes on around them? Refer question 2, I fear.

11. Here’s one: Why is flashing headlights considered an act of aggression or warning about cops in NZ, while in the UK, it’s more commonly someone signaling they are giving way to you as a courtesy? Sorry about using comparisons, but this one is illustrative of the very different driving cultures.

12. Why is competition and anger the dominant means used to communicate with fellow drivers, instead of courtesies?

13. Why do I have to worry all the time that the turkey on the other side of the road is not obliged even to have third party insurance? If I work around someone else’s property with a screwdriver, I’m expected to have public liability insurance, so what about when people drive past within a couple of metres of me in a fast heavy object?

Treating the Patient

What has to happen to improve road safety is a change in what sociologists call “norms”. These are the beliefs and behaviours that a society generally has consensus about. Focusing on negative messages about speed, alcohol and images of windscreens shattering in slow motion does not create norms. In fact, there’s a school of thought that people actually disassociate with those messages. I believe it’s even worse than that. I believe that if the dominant message is that we are bad drivers, we tend to accept the proposition and behave accordingly.

To achieve the change, there has to be a combination of punitive measures (fines and enforcement) and positive measures (creating an environment that rewards and recognises good behaviour). People who don’t get either of these messages should be shaken out of the system until they do get it. If that’s a long time, so be it.

Positive Measures

The following I would consider positive measures, because they create an environment for establishing acceptable road safety standards:

  • Raise the driving age. I still think 18 is about right. For valid reasons, all to do with having stared into the eyes of vacuous youths and seen no hope at all yet, I associate 17 year old males with pretty much all the worst behaviours that go with a very difficult time of their lives. I don’t care about the detail that surrounds the levels of licencing or supervision. It’s just to do with making sure children and rank adolescents are not behind behind the wheel, which is a responsibility they do not understand at all yet. I have heard an argument that New Zealand is so spread out and rural that raising the age would isolate some people. That is such arrant nonsense that I can’t even be bothered to comment. Perhaps their parents could spend a year or two more giving them rides. Then they might at least have some influence upon where they go and what their rampantly misdirected hormones are compelling them to do.
  • Raise the standard of competence and professional development requirements for driving instructors to an agreed national standard.
  • Require anyone applying for a driving test to first have successfully completed a minimum 3 hours driving under the supervision of an approved instructor. And to have demonstrated competence to an agreed minimum level already. Don’t even ask us if you can’t get that far.
  • Raise the bar on driving tests. Make the standard very clear in terms of what competence is and what has to be satisfied. Weed out gutless examiners and retain people who have enough integrity to fail people who display immaturity or arrogance in the driving decisions they make. The test might therefore take an hour or more and cost a lot. Good, it’s what is called right of passage. Let me think about this for a moment: You want to apply for the right to drive a car for the rest of your life? That’s serious. How much do you think it’s worth for the right to kill people? The customer pays, so charge them for the privilege, what’s the problem?
  • Require all drivers to have at least third party insurance. Make registration stickers very bright and clearly colour coded for a quick visual check on currency and make the registration conditional on both current WOF (which it is) AND current insurance. By the way, there are two reasons for tying in the insurance and colour coded registration sticker. One is so you don’t have to pay when someone hits you. The other is that insurance companies will either decline to cover kids with modified or high performance cars, or make the premium very high, and that’s the social price you should have to pay for being a tosser.
  • Get a balance of road safety messages out there. There is a large majority of drivers who can, by the weight of their influence, change the dominant behaviours and “norms” on the road. We don’t tap that resource. I would like to see positive images. For example, without being tacky, show a series of road safety behaviours that “Good Kiwi drivers do”. Just ordinary looking folk, young and old, being courteous, executing good manoevres, taking precautions that avoided an accident, or enhancing the overall level of safety. If we see it often enough on telly, instead of seeing smashed cars in ditches, it might help to encourage a consensus and pride and camaraderie on the roads, instead of the belief that we are all offenders in some sort of gloomy battle with the inevitable.

Punitive measures

The cops can’t be everywhere, so raise the penalties, particularly for some offences. Raise them to the point where taking any risk at all and doing it is very, very unattractive. Being caught for road safety offences such as running red lights, losing control intentionally, passing on the left, weaving across lanes, failure to use indicators, high speed, alcohol, driving in low visibility without lights. These things should cause such a dent in your life that you never want to do it again. And don’t let’s trot out that tosh about court resources and police paperwork because that’s the cost, in the short term, of stopping people dying.

Require an approved motor engineer’s certificate or similar (at the appropriate full commercial cost) for ANY modifications to ANY critical components of a car. Make sure all modified parts have a unique ID on them. That would include suspension, wheels, tyres, brakes, engines and transmissions, exhaust systems, bodywork, chassis and fuel systems. Make the penalties very hurtful for getting caught without an approval. Warrant of Fitness checks would require accompanying documentation of modified parts. Insurance companies should have access to the modified car database. They would find it very interesting reading and they would ensure that their policies had the appropriate exclusions for the cheats. And, again, don’t trot out the trite and defeatist stuff about how it can’t be done. Do we want to change the staus quo or accept it?

I care about road safety. I’m not perfect, but I take pride in my driving. It’s not just the near misses I see daily, and the risky behaviour of a minority of mindless fools that angers and saddens me. 20 years as a volunteer firefighter, all in New Zealand, has added to the sense of pointlessness. When you are standing next to a body in a car at 3.00 a.m. on a cold, dark winter night, it’s all quiet, the life has ended and it’s already too late. You want to tell people, particularly kids, that driving fast and loose is only glamorous and fun till the bang at the end of the skid mark. You can’t go back and try again. That’s it. You wiped yourself off the attendance list and probably someone else too. People are grieving and you won’t hear them, and right up until about 10 seconds before the bang, it was preventable and you damnwell caused it.

Yes, I’m angry.

I would love to see more political will to actually put in place a coherent set of measures, instead of the reactive and piecemeal tinkering that goes on.

We really do have to get serious about road safety. Anyone interested?

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