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There is only one acceptable road safety target - Zero

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Like many of you, I returned to work this week after some time off to recharge and spend precious time with friends and family.

I also took the time to reflect on the past year, which was truly unprecedented in our lifetimes, with the world engulfed by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

As we all know, New Zealand has been incredibly fortunate to escape the worst effects of the pandemic which continues to decimate so many countries, claiming thousands of lives a day. 

Of course New Zealand has still been affected, and the families of 25 New Zealanders will remember last year not just for the disruption and anxiety of Covid lockdowns, but also as the year they lost a loved one who succumbed to the disease. 

Tragically though, many more Kiwi families will remember 2020 as they year they lost a loved one in a road crash.  Last year 319 people lost their lives on our roads, and many more suffered serious debilitating injuries. 

If we step back and take a longer view, the scale of the tragedy of road trauma in this country is astounding. Over the past ten years, more than 3,200 people have died in road crashes in New Zealand, and an estimated 23,000 have been seriously injured. 

Those are staggering figures. They should horrify us. Deaths and serious injuries on our roads should not be tolerated – they are not inevitable. We should not accept that serious crashes are just another part of road travel, and we should not refer to the loss of human life on the roads as a ‘toll’ we are prepared to pay as the price of our ability to get around. 

So what is the answer? Some recent media stories suggest drivers are primarily to blame – poor driving is the problem, and the answer is more training to make everyone better drivers. 

The evidence shows us it’s not that simple. Human beings are fallible by nature, and every one of us makes mistakes. Certainly there is an important role for driver education, and we all have a responsibility to make the right decisions like buckling up, driving sober and at a safe speed, and following the road rules. 

But if we are going to reduce deaths and serious injuries on New Zealand roads we need to do much more. We need to work towards creating a safe system which is designed to account for human error – a system in which people are not killed or seriously injured when they make a mistake, or when someone else makes a mistake. This is what the safest countries in the world for road travel are already doing successfully – places like Sweden, Norway and Australia.  New Zealand’s current road death rate is 7.9 per 100,000 population, whereas countries which have adopted a ‘safe system’ approach have much lower rates. Australia’s current rate is 5.0 deaths per 100,000 population and Sweden’s is 2.6.

That’s why Waka Kotahi is committed to the Government’s Vision Zero strategy, which aspires to a New Zealand where no-one is killed or seriously injured on our roads. Under the Vision Zero philosophy, no loss of life is acceptable. It is based on the fact that we are human and humans inevitably make mistakes so, while the road system needs to keep us moving, it must also be designed to protect us.

Waka Kotahi and Police are working together with local government and others to deliver Road to Zero, the Government’s road safety strategy for 2020-2030, which is guided by Vision Zero. The new strategy sets a target of a 40 percent reduction in deaths and serious injuries over 10 years. The initial action plan includes further investment in roading improvements (including more median and side barriers), improving vehicle safety, a greater focus on road policing and a new approach to speed management. 

New Zealanders quite rightly do not accept that the loss of life is an unfortunate but inevitable and acceptable part of the aviation or the maritime transport sectors. Nor should we accept it on the roads.  Vision Zero applies the same expectations to road travel as we apply to travel by plane or by boat.

We need to be clear that no system can be designed to prevent every crash, and no-one drives perfectly, without mistakes. But road transport systems can - and should – make crashes less likely to occur, and keep people alive when crashes do happen.

Mistakes are inevitable – deaths and serious injuries are not. 

The Road to Zero strategy and action plan is available at www.transport.govt.nz/zero(external link)