The New Zealand Transport Authority annually produces a very comprehensive report about road accidents. From their report it is possible to gauge the number and severity of accidents by location, district, day, time of day, per kilometre travelled, per head of population, vehicle type and whether driver,passenger or pedestrian.
Noticeably absent is any reference to the speed at which the accidents occur or to whether the vehicle was necessarily exceeding the allowable speed limit at the point of the accident. Given that speed limits are touted as an effective control on the accident rates the omission of this data seems strange?
Speed is described as being a causal factor in accidents, together with fatigue, inattention, loss of control, weather and roading conditions. It is not possible to tell from the statistics that are presented as to whether speed is recorded in the statistics only if the vehicle was being driven beyond the legal limit at the point of the accident or whether the speed was inappropriate for the weather or roading condition or merely beyond the competency of the driver to control the car.
Its hard to deny that backing a car out of a driveway at 20 km/hr or travelling around a hairpin corner on a country road at 100 km/hr is an excessive speed, but ironically its not against the law.
Fortunately it is absolutely irrefutable that the vast majority of people drive according to their perception of the risks of having an accident. Most people will drive out of a driveway at less than 5km/hr and take the hairpin bend at 25km/hr. We all have a fundamental concern for our own safety.
Given my research and a concern for having appropriate remedies for our accident rates I wrote the following letter to the Minister of Transport (Brownlee) and the Chairman of NZTA (Chris Moller) several weeks ago:
"Attention: Chris Moller - Chairman NZTA
I have recently reviewed your Statement of Intent 2013 -2016 with considerable interest.
I spend a lot of time travelling on our roads. Living in Whangamata is quite isolated so I have frequent visits to Auckland and Tauranga.
As you will know both these routes include what are referred to as "Safer Speed" zones limiting drivers to 90km/hr.
The complementary billboards that advertise these "High Crash Areas" reminds drivers that these stretches of roads are more hazardous than other roads in our national network.
The only logical conclusion that can be derived from these statements is that the imposition of a speed limit is a reflection of the quality of the roads concerned.
The recently redesigned stretch of road around Maramarua, which reverts to the usual 100 km/hr limit, sits between two of these "Safer Speed" zones, and further confirms the conclusion that it is the quality of the road that determines what speed limit is to be applied.
In the introduction to the Statement of Intent your last paragraph concludes with the highly laudable objective to "..operate an integrated transport system that ensures that the movement of people and goods are efficient, reliable and safe".
Wonderful...but where are the measures?
I am concerned that safety standards are still being inappropriately defined in terms of setting somewhat arbitrary speed limits.
I travel on the Whangamata/Waihi road which has a 100km/hr limit but,even on days without traffic it is barely possible to average better than 60km/hr - the narrow twisting road demands a much slower speed than legally allowed. There are surprisingly few accidents given the roads antiquated design, but it does confirm that drivers always adjust to the perceived roading conditions.
Certainly persisting with speed control monitoring is a waste of taxpayer moneys and ineffectual. If anyone genuinely believed that limiting speed led to a safer driving experience this country would not issue licenses to cars that are capable of speeds of twice the current limits.We have the technology that would ensure no vehicle could exceed 100 km/hr.
I have analysed the fatality and injury statistics supplied by your department and can conclusively show that the reduction in these numbers in recent times has more to do with improvements in car safety than the massive allocation of resources to policing speed limits.
A further reduction could undoubtedly be achieved by redirecting the expenditure on policing into the quality and safety of our roads.
I realise that a public used to a barrage of publicity over driver responsibility would initially find it difficult to be persuaded that it is roading quality that is at the heart of the objectives identified by your organisation.
Perhaps it is your responsibility now to acknowledge this fact?"
Well it is no surprise to me that I have yet to have any response other than to say that the matter has been referred to an Associate Minister for his response !
I have just returned from a week of skiing in Wanaka and one evening my son and I were in a bar sharing a table with a couple from the legal fraternity. The woman was a Judge and "her friend" (husband) was a Barrister. We had a chat about the issues I have described above. They were from Auckland and knew the roads to which I have referred. Interestingly the Barrister acknowledged that the imposition of a 90 km/hr "Safer Speed" zone seemed to be arbitrary and made because our authorities have, in his words, "run out of ideas", for ensuring safety on our roads.
That seemed an entirely appropriate assessment of road safety measures in this country.
There has to be a reason why most accidents happen between 8 and 9 o'clock on a Monday morning and 3 and 5pm on Friday. It is not coincidental that some roads have notoriously high accident rates nor is it coincidental that the Waikato District distinguishes itself from the rest of the country with its extraordinarily high accident rate.
No doubt the "Speed Freaks" will still wail about the need to impose more arbitrary speed limits rather than focus on the need to improve the quality of the roading system itself or the competency of those we let get behind the wheel.
There is no evidence that speed limits impact on road safety except that our authorities continue to broadcast this fearful message. How many times have we heard the Police congratulate themselves on having had an accident free holiday record only to be followed in the next holiday by a new record of road carnage where "speed was the factor"?
If you believe speed kills - don't get in the car.
If you really want change, lets get really tough on our driving abilities and spend money on improving the quality of our roading networks.