Road Safety Week is once again upon us, from 17-23 May, and it is a good time to reflect and look back at our achievements as a country and community, and our ambitions for the future.

This last year has heralded a time of unprecedented change including a global pandemic, rising consciousness of our environment, and a heightened awareness of the need to reduce carbon emissions – all of which are impacting the way we live, work and travel in new and unexpected ways.

With such flux and change as we’ve seen through 2020 and into 2021 also comes the sad constant – people continue to die and get seriously injured on our roads.  And in what may come as little surprise to those in the sector, many in the community feel road deaths are inevitable.

In a recent Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency report, ‘Public attitudes to road safety’, more than half of survey respondents said it was acceptable for people to die on our roads, and 15 percent believed more than 200 deaths each year are acceptable.

There is a lot we can and need to do, to address these attitudes and help people realise that safe roads are not just wishful thinking. In this article we look at some of the factors affecting road safety, and also at some of the very practical, efficient and affordable solutions.  

Road to Zero

In 2019 the Government launched the Road to Zero road safety strategy, which adopts Vision Zero, and a vision for Aotearoa where no-one is killed or seriously injured in road crashes, and where no death or serious injury while travelling on our roads is acceptable. 

Importantly, Road to Zero put a targeted reduction of 40 percent on the number of deaths and serious injuries on our roads by 2030, compared to 2018 levels. Make no mistake, this is a game changer for New Zealand, with a tangible target we can all get behind and support.

The Road to Zero strategy has instigated a number of actions, and Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency and many local authorities are rolling out significant road safety programmes as part of the strategy. When fully implemented these programmes will be a major step towards the “ultimate” goal of no deaths or serious injuries on our roads.  

Statistical improvement?

In 2020 Ministry of Transport data there were 318 road deaths recorded, which is the lowest number since 2015. While it’s heartening to see an improvement, it must be acknowledged that in the yearly periods between 2011 to 2015 there were in fact fewer deaths annually than seen during the 2020 pandemic year.

Absolute focus on the 40 percent target is essential over the coming years to sustain an ever-reducing number of these tragic and all too often accepted consequences of our transport system.  

Impactful influences and our changing behaviours

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated opportunities for people to work remotely, with employees and employers alike having to embrace more flexible working and the technology building blocks put in place to support it. If this continues to catch on, it could well result in less road travel and hence, less road safety risk. However, more people working and playing from home and surrounding suburbs also highlights the need to transform more of our neighbourhood streets into slow speed zones, to avoid simply transferring risk from one location to another.

Aside from the pandemic, ambitious climate goals emerging internationally are also influencing our behaviours, by disrupting reliance on fossil fuels and bringing added impetus to the development of new and improved vehicle technologies. In Norway they are set to ban the sale of fossil fuel vehicles by 2025, and likewise in the UK and Denmark from 2030, and Japan by 2035. According to BloombergNEF, electric vehicles are expected to reach price parity with internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles by 2026, and account for 31 percent of the worldwide vehicle fleet by 2040.

While obviously positive for our environment, this focus on climate change also creates a huge opportunity for road safety if it can incentivise a faster renewal of the New Zealand fleet to newer, cleaner, and safer vehicles.  It’s perhaps no surprise that the top five best-selling new pure electric vehicles (EVs) in New Zealand for 2020 also share a 5-star safety rating according to the Australasian New Car Assessment Program (ANCAP).  ANCAP notes that the testing criteria is also progressively more stringent as time goes on, meaning these 2020 vehicles will also be safer than their 5-star forebears.

Our current reliance on Japanese used car imports is perhaps our Achilles heel, with the supply chain being fed by mostly older vehicles which don’t have the benefit of all the latest safety features. One bright spot that will support a safer used incoming fleet, is a rule change that results in most used imports being required to have Electronic Stability Control, which is known to have significant safety benefits.  

Safer as well as more sustainable

Beyond advances in ANCAP ratings and car safety technologies, Government direction towards more sustainable transport also brings other potential road safety benefits. Mode shifting away from private cars towards public transport, walking, cycling and e-mobility (such as e-bikes and e-scooters) has great road safety potential – not least due to fewer cars on the road. Incidents involving cycles and e-mobility typically occur at lower speeds, and will generally also do far less damage to themselves and to others in the event of a mistake, than incidents caused by a motor vehicle. At least for now, a watching brief may be needed on the power and speed of e-mobility, particularly if potential impact speeds of over 30km/h become commonplace. Simple but effective? Low cost speed control at crossing point in HamiltonSimple but effective? Low cost speed control at crossing point in Hamilton

Finding the right balance

While safer vehicles, less travel and a shift towards more sustainable transport will all make a big difference, there remain a number of fundamental changes needed to the collective mindset as to how our road and street networks are designed, used and operated. Key to supporting people’s transport mode choices is ensuring access to safe and connected infrastructure and environments, including better designed and integrated roads including cycle lanes, footpaths and bus lanes. More people-friendly streets in our cities, with slower speed environments and more cycle facilities are just some of the changes required. Lower speeds and measures to support those speeds such as raised platforms, will be fundamental to high risk points where road users’ cross paths such as pedestrian crossings and intersections.  

A road safety utopia of all streets without cars is not realistic or equitable, but neither should the pendulum be swung too far towards cars, their drivers and occupants. The ability for vehicles to travel as quickly as possible between destinations has historically been given far too much weight, and has resulted in far too much preventable road trauma. Median barriers and edge protection barriers on our higher volume rural roads and highways provide an essential safety net, and their provision will need to be a mainstay of our safety infrastructure. As part of a suite of safety measures, roundabouts which reduce potential impact speeds, and rumble strips to announce deviation in direction all have an important role to play.

Also, a reduction in speed limits themselves, in locations where safety infrastructure cannot reasonably be upgraded, will need to be rolled out.

Engaging our communities

In addition to physical and legal interventions, is the equally or more important need to sell the road safety story at all levels, and bring the wider public on the journey.  As highlighted in the aforementioned Waka Kotahi ‘Public attitudes to road safety’ survey results, this is clearly an area with significant room for improvement.

Tipping the scales towards that all important ‘social licence’ is fundamental to bringing stakeholders and decision makers alike to the table, and wholeheartedly supporting the Road to Zero goals. No parts of our communities are immune or unaffected by the impacts of preventable road trauma, which devastates families, friends, colleagues and loved ones. We need to effectively engage with all demographics, across all our towns, cities and regions.

Traditional methods will get us some way to this, but innovation in engagement will undoubtedly play a part in the future such as the Talanoa Project which used conversational AI (artificial intelligence) to engage with communities in Samoan. Other innovative tools such as virtual reality can also help immerse stakeholders in possible safety risks and the solutions that could address them.

On the path to make our roads safer

Certainly, Vision Zero is an ambitious target but it’s the only target that’s ethically and morally right.

Some may argue that zero is an unattainable goal, but the one thing for certain is the harder we push, the closer we will get.  And what is sometimes lost, is that there are things we can all do to contribute to fewer deaths and serious injuries on our roads - whether it be through choosing safer, more sustainable travel, taking a few km/h off the speedo, paying closer attention to the conditions or by supporting Road to Zero projects.

We have the vision and we have the opportunity to work together, to save people’s lives and have less people seriously injured on our roads, and that’s worth some hard conversations.

About the Author
Marcus Brown

Principal - Transportation

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