19.12.2016 : Stuart Tucker

Safe travels

The onset of Christmas is traditionally a time to review the achievements of the past year and look to the opportunities in the coming 12 months. It is also a period where we tend to travel, and where the safety of our roads is paramount.

This Christmas, many New Zealanders will be impacted by the aftermath of the Kaikoura earthquakes. Seismic activity continues to be a feature of our landscape and the impacts are significant. Christmas will be no doubt be celebrated very differently in the upper South Island this year – I wish those affected by the quakes a swift recovery.

Unfortunately, Christmas is also a period where a number of New Zealanders will be killed or seriously injured on our roads. During the 2015/2016 Christmas holiday period there were 11 fatal crashes and 244 reported injury crashes. Those crashes resulted in 12 deaths, 71 serious injuries and 296 minor injuries. Road crashes continue to be a major cause of preventable death and injury in New Zealand. In the past 12 months there have been 327 people killed and 12,862 people seriously injured on our roads.

Safer Journeys is the Government’s strategy to improve the safety of our roads. It recognises people make mistakes, but shows how we can make changes so they don’t cost lives. By using internationally proven strategies, we can make our existing roads more forgiving of human error.

Safe Roads was created to expedite a $600 million programme to make many rural routes on the state highway network safer over the next six years. It aims to prevent 900 deaths and serious injuries through relatively simple measures such as rumble strips, shoulder widening, safety barriers and better signage. For the past year, I have been serving on the Board of the Safe Roads Alliance, which comprises the NZ Transport Agency, Bloxam, Burnett and Oliver, along with Beca and Northern Civil. The role has provided me with considerable insight into the major causes of road crashes and the solutions available to reduce deaths and serious injuries.

There are lots of things we can do to make our roads safer and many Kiwis are already doing their bit. We’re choosing safer vehicles, we’ve changed our attitudes towards drink driving, and we’re becoming more aware of the dangers of speed and other risk factors. But mistakes still happen and safer roads and roadsides can help to make those crashes survivable.

Most of the deaths on our roads are due to head-on collisions or cars running off the road and hitting trees, poles or deep ditches. There are ways we can improve the road to prevent crashes like these, and to make sure if a crash happens, people are less likely to be killed or seriously injured.

Looking at how speed is managed is another way to reduce risk. Our roads are unique. They are varied, scenic and often enjoyable to drive, but they can also be dangerous and unforgiving and have many hidden hazards. Drivers need to choose the right speed for the roads because not all risks are visible, and often our roads aren’t easy to read. When the right cues are in place, drivers have an easier time choosing a safe speed.

Our team at Safe Roads uses predictive analysis to determine appropriate safety treatments for candidate sections of state highway. These predictive outputs are then correlated with KiwiRAP (which assesses the road safety of the state highway network) classifications and also checked against known black spots. The analyses can help predict how many lives can be saved with each programme of safety improvements. It means more effective designs can be developed and prioritised into a programme of work across the country. Our aim is to help develop a roading network which is increasingly understandable for road users and more forgiving when things go wrong.

A key finding is that three quarters of the people who are killed or seriously injured on our roads have been involved in head-on collisions or have driven off the road. In a rural state highway context, flexible side and median barriers provide an affordable and remarkably effective means of addressing this risk. The barriers are able to catch and redirect a car before it hits something less forgiving – like a tree, power pole or, in the case of median barriers, an oncoming car. The wire cables flex on impact, slowing the vehicle down and pushing it back into its lane. But most importantly, they absorb the violent impact forces that would otherwise harm the people inside the vehicle. These barriers can reduce head-on crashes where people die or are seriously injured by a minimum of 63 per cent, and up to 100 per cent on single lane roads. That’s why we’re starting to see them being installed on state highways throughout New Zealand.

Other, simpler measures are also proving effective in reducing deaths and serious injuries. Wide centrelines, additional signs and road markings, rumble strips, shoulder widenings and speed restrictions all have their place in the Safe Roads tool kit. The humble rumble strip can reduce head-on and run off crashes by 30 per cent, with an associated 42 per cent reduction in the number of deaths and serious injuries.

A key aspect of our work at Safe Roads is engagement with local communities to make sure we get the right solution on the road. Communities have a vital role to play in assessing the risks of their roads - locals know local roads and frequently have a perspective on what needs to be done. It’s important these perspectives are heard and taken into account. So our team has been working with communities to find solutions that fit with the way they use the roads. This has been challenging for our team at times, with some stakeholders preferring the roads themselves are significantly changed, rather than adding safety improvements. In other locations, particularly where communities have been impacted by the effects of crashes, the safety upgrades are keenly sought and swiftly implemented. Another aspect of the work is the Safe Roads programme must be aligned to the other capital and maintenance works planned by the Transport Agency. It’s a complicated task, but one that our team is extremely committed to. They see every life saved as that of a close friend.

On that note, I’d like to wish you a safe and enjoyable break. If you are travelling on the nation’s roads this Christmas period, please drive safely, turn your mobile phone off and have sufficient breaks. It might save your life.

About the Author

Stuart Tucker

General Manager - Infrastructure (NZ)

Stuart leads a team of around 450 engineering professionals based in eight locations across New Zealand. Together, his team provides engineering services to clients in the land transport (road and rail), land development and port/coastal sectors. The projects they've worked on include the Waterview Connection in Auckland, the Tauranga Eastern Link, the Mackays to Pekapeka Alliance in Wellington and the Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team.

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