Auckland – we have a problem. The number of people killed on Auckland roads in the past three years rose by 77.8 per cent. The number seriously injured rose 72.5 per cent. These figures are far higher than those for the rest of the country, which recorded rises of 22.9 and 27.6 respectively. Auckland has a lot of commuter traffic, all cities do. But roading in other regions is more challenging, ask any Northlander, or any unsealed road-user anywhere in NZ. So why is the car crash rate in Auckland growing at a rate 5 times faster than the number of extra cars on the roads? The NZ Herald profiled the horrendous car crash problem recently at https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12058539. They also highlighted the fact that over 40% of vehicles in NZ have only a 1 or 2 star safety rating, out of a possible 5-star rating. They say that 47% of car crash deaths were speed related, and 39% related to driver failure to give way to on-coming traffic. Even worse, over 100 people were killed on NZ roads last year were NOT WEARING A SEAT BELT. These statistics relate solely to driver behaviour and are a disgrace for which there is no excuse. NZ roads are not world-class either. Car crash statistics are a global problem though and we’ve talked about this before, see https://crashmanagement.nz/1-3-million-people-die-in-a-car-accident-every-year/
Last month, some time before 8am on a Thursday morning, 56-year-old librarian Christine Ovens was run down in a car crash while she walked across Oteha Valley Rd in Albany to get to her bus stop. Last Friday night on that same road, 15-year-old schoolboy Nathan Kraatskow was cycling home when he was also run down. Auckland Transport and the police know it’s a dangerous road for car crashes. The bus stops are difficult to get to and so is Oteha Valley School. But the road has been dangerous for years. There have been at least 11 crashes on it since 2014. Nathan Kraatskow, a 15-year-old pupil at Vanguard Military Academy, was cycling home last Friday night when he was killed in an alleged hit-and-run. That was the year Auckland Transport (AT) drew up improvement plans, but there was public debate over whether they took due account of the needs of cyclists and pedestrians, and things ground to a halt.
The underlying problem? Oteha Valley Rd is a motorway access road and AT has been reluctant to do anything to affect the speed at which cars can get onto the motorway. AT is now installing a crossing near the school and intends to make further improvements over the next year or two, including building an overbridge. Auckland city is Oteha Valley Rd writ large.
Last year the number of serious car crash incidents involving alcohol rose by 70 per cent on the previous year. Serious crashes involving a failure to give way or stop were up 39 per cent. Serious speed-related crashes were up 47 per cent. In one year.
It goes on. The number of people in a serious car crash who were not wearing a seatbelt has almost doubled since 2015. In the 10 years to 2017, motorcycle deaths rose 63 per cent. In the past four years, the number of high school students killed or seriously injured has risen 89 per cent. It’s as if, all of a sudden, for a sector of the driving community at least, a red mist has descended. And there’s this. In the past 10 years the rate of harm to people “outside the vehicle” has risen 50 per cent, but for those inside the vehicle it’s 10 per cent. If you’re in an SUV, the rate has actually declined a little. To put that in human terms, if you hit a pedestrian in your SUV, you won’t be harmed. But the pedestrian will probably die.
And there’s more to it than all that. In the same period, because of government funding cuts, the police took 111 dedicated officers off the roads nationwide – mostly in Auckland, which lost 71 road patrol officers. And the Government itself decided not to increase penalties for dangerous driving. As for Auckland Transport, it has had different priorities. Not allowing safety issues or anything else to slow journey times was the mantra that until late last year utterly dominated our road-planning organisation. The red mist is bad enough but its impact has been made far worse by the authorities who are supposed to protect us on the roads. They’ve let it happen. The startling evidence for all this comes in a report commissioned last year by the AT board from Australian consultants Whiting Moyne. The report is called Auckland Transport: Road Safety Business Improvement Review, but behind that unexciting name the conclusions are clear. “Road safety performance in Auckland in recent years … reflects a number of deficiencies of public policy at central government and local level. Most of all it reflects an absence of commitment to improving safety on New Zealand and Auckland’s roads.”
This is not an international trend: in a survey of 29 world cities, Auckland had the worst rate of motorcycle fatalities, second-worse rate of pedestrian fatalities and sixth-worst cycle fatalities.
Mostly in the OECD, car crash deaths and serious injuries on the roads are low and declining.
Nor is it the inevitable result of increased traffic numbers. Road use has climbed for decades, but from the 1980s until 2012 the number of serious crashes declined. Our cars are safer, many of our roads are safer, there was better public education and better enforcement of road rules. Attitudes to drink-driving changed. In 1986 there were nearly 1700 deaths and serious injuries on our roads. By 2012 that number was down to just over 400. Then it started to rise again, and quickly. Last year we had double the rate of 2012. We’re back where we were in 1994.
In Auckland, where the car crash problem is far worse than elsewhere, there’s only 15 per cent more traffic on the roads, compared with 2014. As Mayor Phil Goff has noted, the rate of deaths and serious injuries has risen five times faster than the increase in traffic. Police say a big part of the problem is us. We drive faster. Police have recorded a 1 per cent increase in speed in 50km/h and 100km/h areas, and they know that every 1 per cent increase in speed leads to a 4 per cent increase in deaths. We break the law by using our mobile phones while driving. Police know this causes fatal crashes because they can see it in the phone records.
Many of us have stopped wearing seatbelts – even though it’s not inconvenient and takes only a moment to do – and we die because of it. “It comes down to drivers taking personal responsibility,” says the police national manager of road policing, Superintendent Steve Greally.
He’s right, it does. But that’s no reason for the Government, the police and Auckland Transport to fail us as well. We are not back to the bad old days of the 1980s. But that’s the direction we’re heading in. Most of the road safety work done by police is funded through the Road Policing Programme (RPP), which is produced by the NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) working with the Police. Allocations from the fund have hovered around the $300 million a year mark for a decade, which means they have fallen behind police operational requirements. The roads are busier and the police have more to do. As the RPP for 2015-18 noted, “Compared with 2001, by 2014 vehicles were up 29 per cent, population up 17 per cent and travel up 22 per cent.”
The allocations for 2015-18 were “not enough to retain service delivery levels”, Greally tells the Weekend Herald. “We had to gear up to live within our means.” He added that by using “evidence-based” risk analysis, they have been able to channel their resources to where they are needed most. In reality, that has meant:
- Breath-testing numbers slashed.
• Greater focus on rural roads.
• Eliminating 111 officer positions for on-road safety, including 71 in Auckland.
• Underuse of speed cameras.
Although the funding is agreed by NZTA and police, they work within guidelines set in the Government Policy Statement (GPS). If the police do not have enough money for road safety, the Government is responsible.
If you’re wondering why you haven’t seen a drink-drive checkpoint for a while, you’re not alone. Even the once-common Thursday/Friday checkpoints on roads out of the central city have disappeared. Greally calls it targeting – you’ll still run into checkpoints in South Auckland and parts of the west – but it’s hard to believe those central city checkpoints did not pick up a lot of drunk drivers.
The AT report says police now do about 2 million breath tests a year nationwide. Before staff cuts it was 3 million, and even that wasn’t enough. In Auckland, it says police do only 30 per cent of the breath tests they should to conform with international “good practice”, and only about half what they did in 2012/13. Greally repeatedly stresses the importance of policing rural drivers, although the AT report says the overwhelming majority of deaths and serious injuries in Auckland are on urban roads.He confirmed that in 2016, 111 on-road officer positions were lost nationwide, including 71 in Auckland. That’s a staggering 64 per cent of the total.
Early last year police and other groups successfully persuaded the Government to restore funding for those positions. But they are still not all back in place and the damage is plain to see in the 2017 statistics. Greally declined to answer when asked if the police might have got it wrong in taking so many resources out of Auckland. He did confirm they use only three static cameras at intersections – two in South Auckland and one in Wellington – but added that they have a four-year programme under way to introduce 48 new static cameras on high-risk stretches of road.
The report also says “covert mobile cameras” are the most effective technology available for reducing speed. That’s the camera in a police vehicle you suddenly come across parked at the side of the road. Greally agreed they are “very effective”. But the report says police deploy these cameras for less than half the time regarded as “good practice” in larger Australian states. Greally said he didn’t have statistics on that.
According to Auckland Transport, though, a few years back police and AT established 15 camera sites and rotated five cameras around them. All were decommissioned last year: the technology was out of date and there was no money to replace them. Greally raised the issue of personal responsibility several times. “And there is some driver behaviour I would described as pure evil. Where the driver must know they are endangering the lives of other people.” True as that might be, blaming the driver is not the key to the official police road-safety strategy, known as Safer Journeys. It’s based on the idea that all drivers will make mistakes and car crashes will happen, so road safety is about reducing the risk of harm from those mistakes. It involves safer vehicles, safer roads and better policing, as well as better driving. Safer Journeys is an expression of a Swedish approach to road safety called Vision Zero. Not one death is acceptable. “The road system has to keep us moving,” says the Vision Zero website. “But it must also be designed to protect us at every turn.” We don’t talk about “accidents” any more, because that implies a randomness beyond our control. Officials don’t talk about the “road toll” either, because that suggest death is a price some of us have to pay for being on the road.
Some commentators have complained that Vision Zero is utopian nonsense, but they’re out of step. It has already been adopted here, in a generalised theoretical way, by the police, the Government, Auckland Transport and other transport agencies. Those authorities all know we have a car crash crisis and they know that from the top down our thinking and behaviour has to change. Until this year, though, they’ve been reluctant to meet the challenge. Vision Zero doesn’t say there will be no car crash deaths tomorrow. It says, how do we stop thinking of deaths as a necessary cost of road travel? How do we make road travel an area of life, like being at work or at school, where it is not acceptable that people die?
Greally explained enforcement focuses on four specifics. Are the proper restraints being used? Is the driver impaired, by alcohol or drugs or something else? Is the driver likely to be distracted, especially by their phone? And are they speeding? He said it was not his role to comment on whether speed limits should be lowered in some areas or penalties for speeding raised. The Minister of Transport during the time when car crash deaths and serious injuries rose so alarmingly was National’s Simon Bridges. He declined to talk to the Weekend Herald and referred us to the party’s new transport spokesperson, Jami-Lee Ross. Ross did not accept his government had underfunded road safety. He blamed the police, saying: “Decisions around how to allocate funding are up to the Commissioner of Police.” But he also said his government “possibly could have done more” and added that in the election campaign they had “recognised that more police are needed and proposed a package of 880 additional staff”. The report suggests the problems run deeper than funding. It says, for example, that we lag behind international best practice on speed management and penalising those who break the rules.
The Weekend Herald asked Ross whether he thought the introduction of higher speed limits on some roads had confused the message for drivers on all roads. “No,” he said. “Speed limits should be appropriate to the roads. If they’re not appropriate, frustration kicks in and drivers go faster anyway.” Did Ross think higher fines should be introduced? “I’d be willing to look at it.”
Could he explain why his government had turned down a proposal to introduce demerit points, which lead to a temporary loss of licence? He said he had not been in Cabinet at the time so could not comment and would ask former transport minister Bridges to respond. Bridges did not respond, but his office provided a statement from “a spokesperson for the National Party”. It said: “With speed cameras you can’t easily figure out who the driver of a car is when a camera has taken a snapshot of a vehicle. On that basis there are a range of issues in attempting to apply demerit points to a licence holder.” One of the key recommendations of the AT report is to increase the appeal of public transport. Fewer cars will mean fewer death and injuries.
Ross said his government had been committed to better public transport. He said he was a big supporter of it, especially busways. But hadn’t he been an outspoken critic of the new Government’s transport funding plans, which focus on public transport at the expense of big new roads for private vehicles?
Ross said he was opposed to light rail, but not public transport. We asked him what he would do to lower the number of deaths and serious injuries on our roads. “I can’t pinpoint one issue,” he said. He praised AT chair Lester Levy for “implementing a Vision Zero plan” but when asked if that meant he supported the plan, he said he couldn’t say without knowing the details.
Auckland Transport is undergoing a fundamental rethink of the way it works, and the road safety crisis informs that process. It’s long overdue. The report is scathing of AT, noting that before this year, it had failed to initiate a single review of safety strategy since it was formed in 2010. Safety was valued so little in the organisation, it was the responsibility of a fourth-tier manager. The report recommends remedial training in road safety principles for all AT’s senior managers. It also says they should have KPIs set to keep them focused on the importance of safety. They’re among 45 recommendations specifically aimed at AT.
The organisation appears to be responding. Late last year, the long-serving CEO of Auckland Transport, David Warburton, retired and his replacement, Shane Ellison, has started to introduce sweeping changes. Ellison told the Weekend Herald all 45 of the report’s recommendations would be adopted. “We need dramatic change,” he said. We asked him whether he thought Auckland Transport was in any way culpable for the sharply rising rate of deaths and injuries on our roads. “That’s a big word. I haven’t thought about it like that. It’s clearly unacceptable, it’s sad and it’s tragic.” He then talked about the alignment among his organisation, central government and the Auckland Council. Their plans include $900 million specifically for what Associate Transport Minister Julie-Anne Genter told the Herald will be “new safety programmes”.
Ellison said the new focus would mean reduced speeds in many parts of the city: more 80km/h zones, and more busy areas like the central city and shopping areas reduced to 40km/h or 30km/h. The success of the 40km/h limit on Ponsonby Rd should provide a model for other precincts to follow. He promised more bus lanes and cycle lanes, and safer intersections and road crossings.
On congested roads, he said, doing everything to reduce travel times didn’t make sense anyway, because vehicles couldn’t travel at the maximum permitted speed. Calming traffic would make roads safer without always affecting travel times. AT is also stepping up in the area of red-light cameras. It’s recently installed six, although they are not yet operational. Six more will be installed later this year. Asked if he would establish safety-related KPIs for his managers, Ellison said, “Yes. We’re committing ourselves to reducing car crash deaths and serious injuries by 60 per cent over the next 10 years.” That’s also the Government’s target, announced by Genter.
She said, “Officials will review funding for road police this year to ensure police are able to play an effective enforcement and deterrent role.” She also said, “Communities shouldn’t have to jump through complex and time-consuming processes just to set safe, sensible speed limits outside their homes and schools. Officials are currently looking at options to simplify the process so councils that want to set safe, sensible speed limits can do just that. “This Government has sent a very clear message, that safety is now a top priority in transport. Not changing is not an option.”
Auckland Transport chairman Lester Levy agrees with that, although he has been in charge of the organisation right through the years when “not changing” was exactly what it did. He said management had a particular approach and “we let that run for a while, but we became unconvinced”. “AT has treated convenience as being more important than safety,” and there would now be a “paradigm shift”. “It’s going to be unpopular with a lot of people, but it’s going to happen. We are determined.” Levy means many people will not like the safety of the more vulnerable road users – motorcyclists, pedestrians and cyclists – being prioritised. Even though the report makes it clear they are the main victims in our fast-rising death and injury rates.
“There is a widespread quite negative attitude to vulnerable users. We are expecting resistance, but the board is resolute.” It will need to be.
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