Rocky road

New Zealand Listener - - EDITORIAL -

Most of us would agree with As­so­ciate Trans­port Min­is­ter Julie Anne Gen­ter when she says the num­ber of fa­tal­i­ties on our roads is un­ac­cept­able. But just as New Zealan­ders may also agree that rates of child poverty are too high, it is far harder to find a con­sen­sus on the steps that should be taken to re­duce ca­su­al­ties. Gen­ter has said that the Gov­ern­ment will in­ves­ti­gate adopt­ing a tar­get of zero deaths and se­ri­ous in­juries on the roads. It will also no longer talk about the road toll, she said, but in­stead re­fer to the tally of fa­tal­i­ties as “road deaths”.

Just as with child poverty, nei­ther set­ting a new tar­get nor giv­ing the prob­lem a dif­fer­ent name will save a sin­gle life. It is not se­man­tics that are killing road users – or chil­dren in their homes. The pub­lic is prob­a­bly tir­ing of ex­ces­sive rhetoric.

That is not to sug­gest that Gen­ter is not sin­cere; she is, as ev­ery trans­port min­is­ter has been be­fore her. In the cases of child poverty and road safety, suc­ces­sive min­is­ters in suc­ces­sive ad­min­is­tra­tions have com­mit­ted them­selves to find­ing so­lu­tions. The an­swers re­main elu­sive, be­cause gov­ern­ments can go only so far in leg­is­lat­ing to im­prove hu­man be­hav­iour. MPs can pass laws that ca­jole, nudge, ad­mon­ish and pun­ish, but laws alone do not stop a per­son who has no self-con­trol lash­ing out against a stepchild or pre­vent a teenager pil­ing his friends into a stolen car at 2am.

Gen­ter says the Gov­ern­ment will in­ves­ti­gate new min­i­mum stan­dards for im­ported ve­hi­cles and per­haps take another look at the grad­u­ated driver-li­cens­ing sys­tem. It can do that and put more rum­ble strips and bar­ri­ers in places where it ap­pears they would make a dif­fer­ence. But the big­gest cause of ac­ci­dents is not roads or cars – it’s driv­ers.

Speed­ing and driv­ing un­der the in­flu­ence of drugs or al­co­hol are two of the big­gest con­trib­u­tors to road fa­tal­i­ties. Yet it is al­ready il­le­gal to drive when ine­bri­ated or un­der the in­flu­ence of drugs. It is al­ready an of­fence to drive over the speed limit or in a man­ner that is un­safe for the con­di­tions. It is al­ready a re­quire­ment for driv­ers and pas­sen­gers to wear seat belts and for driv­ers not to have a phone in their hands. Most driv­ers com­ply, week af­ter tragic week, but we see that laws do not pre­vent some people driv­ing while dis­tracted, care­lessly or reck­lessly.

If the laws al­ready ex­ist but are too of­ten flouted, more com­pli­ance would seem to be the an­swer. But the coun­try can­not af­ford a po­lice of­fi­cer at ev­ery in­ter­sec­tion. Also, though we ac­cept ran­dom check­points if they are oc­ca­sional, New Zealan­ders are quick to de­cry overzeal­ous scru­tiny, es­pe­cially since most driv­ers are do­ing noth­ing wrong.

Last year, 380 people were killed on the roads, com­pared with

327 the pre­vi­ous year. The ris­ing toll prob­a­bly re­flects that there are more people and cars on the roads. Min­istry of Trans­port fig­ures show that in 2016, there were 22 ac­ci­dents caus­ing in­jury for ev­ery 100 mil­lion kilo­me­tres trav­elled. It was the same fig­ure in 2015 and was slightly higher – at 24 in­juries per 100 mil­lion kilo­me­tres trav­elled – in 2011.

There should be no com­pla­cency found in sta­tis­tics show­ing that our driv­ing may not ac­tu­ally be get­ting worse if those sta­tis­tics show only that our driv­ing has been bad all the time. How­ever, the fig­ures sug­gest that, iron­i­cally, the one Gov­ern­ment pol­icy that may re­duce the road toll could be one that was not in­tended to have this ef­fect: the fuel tax. If an in­creased fuel price means people take fewer trips, drive shorter dis­tances or are priced out of pri­vate trans­port al­to­gether, sim­ply re­duc­ing the num­ber of kilo­me­tres trav­elled could see a fall in ac­ci­dents.

This un­in­tended ben­e­fit will not mean all will agree with the Gov­ern­ment’s ap­proach, es­pe­cially if the tax hits the poor hard­est in driv­ing costs and puts up the prices of goods and ser­vices. The tax may well lower the road toll, but ul­ti­mately, New Zealan­ders need to stop look­ing to the Gov­ern­ment to fix ev­ery prob­lem that cit­i­zens cre­ate.

The an­swer to safer, bet­ter, more con­sid­er­ate and re­spon­si­ble driv­ing lies with each of us, ev­ery time we get be­hind the wheel.

Iron­i­cally, the one Gov­ern­ment pol­icy that may re­duce the road toll could be one that was not in­tended to have this ef­fect: the fuel tax.

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