After reading a recent article on a popular New Zealand News site I felt compelled to respond.
It opens with this statement, and implies that the two are directly connected:
“Most of the country has been without fixed speed cameras for more than a year, police have confirmed.
It has coincided with one of the deadliest periods in recent years on New Zealand’s roads.”
The whole article seems written to reinforce this link – that speed in itself is a killer, and cameras will somehow make us safe.
Let me be clear – neither Drive Life or myself condone speeding. Speed limits are in place for good reason, and speeding on public roads is irresponsible and potentially dangerous. But the way that New Zealand Police focus on speed above everything else really irritates me. It’s like they have to stay on message, endlessly repeating the “speed kills” mantra despite all of the other factors, and evidence.
Case in point:
“Speed kills and this is definitely another tool for getting the road toll down in New Zealand,” – Police Association president Chris Cahill
Back to speed cameras. In my opinion, speed cameras have a limited effect at best. If a speed camera is well known, or well signposted, people will slow down just as they go past it, often over-braking and disrupting traffic flow. In accident black spots a well-signposted camera could definitely be a useful tool, and save lives. But they often seem to be placed on straight roads or motorways.
I’m not saying we should all be able to speed with impunity, but speed cameras catch the driver in the act. The speeding is already happening, and you’re just punishing them for it. The driver might slow down for a few days or weeks afterwards but do our existing cameras save lives? Hard to say. As Chris Cahill says above, they are definitely a tool in the Police’s arsenal.
Then there’s the accidents themselves. They always say “Speed was a factor”. Well of course it was, if the vehicle wasn’t moving it couldn’t have crashed. And yes, the higher the speed of impact, the bigger the mess, that definitely makes sense. But so many reported accidents seem to be head-ons, because a driver crossed the centre line into oncoming traffic. Do this at any speed and it’s going to be bad. Why did they cross the line? Driver inattention? Texting? Sleepiness? Fiddling with the stereo? Eating a sandwich? Lighting a cigarette? Driver under the influence? It could be any number of things, but it was probably not caused by their speed alone.
This begs the question – do we need to improve our roads? Maybe widen them and add a central median barrier. I think so, at least the main state highways, and so do the AA. They’re campaigning for 100km of roads a year to be upgraded.
But we also need to improve our drivers. The general standard of driving in New Zealand seems pretty poor to me. I regularly see people who are clearly not paying attention to their driving. It seems to be something that people do while thinking about something else. They cut corners, weave between lanes, tailgate, fail to indicate, or indicate poorly, run red lights, go through stop signs, set off without looking properly. I could go on. To most people driving is just a way of getting from A to B, they don’t have any interest or take any pride in doing it well as long as they get there.
The road toll has risen for the last couple of years and it’s a worrying trend. The AA’s Mike Noon said that 100 people who died in road accidents last year weren’t wearing seatbelts, and that half of them might have survived if they had worn them. He also called for roadside drug testing and alcohol interlocks for repeat drink drivers. These are good ideas, though I think if you’re a repeat drink driver you should have your licence taken away.
Another big factor in the seriousness of accidents is New Zealand’s vehicle fleet. Our cars are relatively old and have limited safety equipment, crumple zones, crash protection etc. It doesn’t help that older cars tend to be poorly maintained, and it’s common to see a car with scarily bald tyres, lights not working, bits hanging off. Or even just cheap budget tyres. Imagine getting into a tricky situation and trying to take evasive action in a car that has not been looked after and has no grip.
Overall there’s no simple answer to this problem. People are always going to do stupid things. They’re not always going to drive to the conditions, they’re going to get impatient and overtake, they’re going to drive after a few beers, they’re going to skimp on expensive maintenance. Maybe we need more stringent WOF checks, more roadside safety checks, more roadside drug and alcohol testing. We definitely need more driver training. Maybe a mandatory 5-yearly refresher course for all drivers. Not necessarily a test, but a reminder and opportunity to realise what bad habits you’ve picked up and do something about them.
There is no single answer to killing fewer people on our roads – so why do the Police/NZTA continue to beat a single drum – always, ‘don’t speed’. Their own advertising says it it – ‘less speed equals less harm’. It’s saying to the public, you are going to crash, so drive slower to cause less harm. This is a classic ‘Ambulance at the bottom of the hill’ approach. How about we start focussing on reducing the crashes in the first place?
I recently spotted a new NZTA company car; the slogan on the back said “Slower drivers are our goal”. The word may have not been ‘goal’, but the first part is the most important. Shouldn’t New Zealand expect their slogan to be, “Safer drivers are our goal”.
Let’s give an example. You have an athlete who’s competing in the decathlon. Does he just practice long jumps, or does he practice every skill he needs to win? To make any change in the amount of people dying on our roads, the NZTA and Police need to remove the blinkers from their eyes and look at the big picture.
What do you think?
Post your thoughts in the comments below.