The NZ Initiative's Sam Warburton looks at the figures and says something worrying is happening on our roads

By Sam Warburton*

New Zealand is on track to have its fourth consecutive rise in the road toll this year. In raw numbers, 206 car occupants have died so far this year, already exceeding the entire year’s totals for each of 2013 and 2014. Even adjusting for increased travel, the chance of car occupants dying on our roads is up 12% on 2016 and 41% on 2013. Are we getting the balance right between safety and other factors such as travel time and reliability?

In a piece for a few weeks ago, I wrote about how wild swings in transport infrastructure funding with political cycles was likely undermining what you and I, as transport users, really want. I also revealed that this issue, and others, would be explored as part of a New Zealand Initiative project on transport.

In what will hopefully become a series of pieces for Interest, I will be unfurling some elements of that story as it progresses. The story might jump from place to place and not always follow a traditional path but, with any luck, each chapter will be interesting.

This week I thought I’d try to make things a bit more topical. Maybe the Ministry of Transport had something new for me to work with:

Well, that’s grim.

But also topical. Ongoing updates to the road toll might not be as flashy as the latest policy announcement or the fresh-off-the-printers annual report but, as events that deeply affect families and communities, they are worthy of just as much attention.

This importance is reflected by Governments, both National-led and Labour-led, who have consistently made road safety one of their primary transport objectives.

So, what have we been getting for all the billions – over four of them – central government spends on transport each year?

Figure 1 shows fatalities of car occupants after accounting for how much people are driving.

Figure 1: Fatality rate of car occupants relative to 2013

The historical downward trend in fatalities has ended.

Deaths on our roads among car occupants appear to have been increasing since 2013. While the road toll naturally bounces around a bit, statistical tests confirm that this is not just natural variation.

This is not bad luck. Something worrying is happening.

It is particularly worrying given that improvements in vehicle technology should otherwise mean a continued fall in the road toll.

It is beyond my abilities and the scope of this article to pinpoint exactly what’s going on, but four years on and government agencies are also, at least publicly, no closer to an explanation.

In an Insights piece on the New Zealand Initiative’s website, I looked at whether we are getting value-for-money from some of our biggest road projects. These Roads of National Significance have the highest possible safety ratings and, rightly, the NZ Transport Agency is looking at which sections could have a speed limit of 110 kmph without significantly increasing safety risks.

However, these roads are also relatively lightly travelled compared to the cost incurred in constructing them. If safety is truly a primary objective of governments, should we not consider whether there are other, riskier blackspots and stretches of roads to which we should be directing our tax dollars?

And if safety is not really a primary objective, should it be? Do we trust our governments enough to put our lives in their hands?

In fact, why do we trust our governments with any aspect of transport infrastructure? Wild swings in transport funding and concerning trends in safety begin to set the scene. In future chapters, we’ll get into the characters and plot.


*Sam Warburton is a research fellow at the New Zealand Initiative, which provides a fortnightly column to

We welcome your help to improve our coverage of this issue. Any examples or experiences to relate? Any links to other news, data or research to shed more light on this? Any insight or views on what might happen next or what should happen next? Any errors to correct?

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Perhaps we have many new drivers from overseas not accustomed to our particular conditions? An increase since 2013 seems to be related to a particularly large influx of migrants and tourists.

you need to measure against population, you might find with the increase the percentage is stable.
more people = more cars

"Figure 1 shows fatalities of car occupants after accounting for how much people are driving". I think this does account for population increase .

Our population prior to 2013 was also increasing, yet fig 1 shows that fatalities were declining. A massive increase in tourist numbers must also be added to our resident population. One fact is certain; it occurred under Nationals watch.


The fatality rate is car occupant deaths divided by light passenger car kilometres travelled. This is a better approach than using population.

Calculations, sources and notes about the method is in this spreadsheet:

NZ's population has increased by 300,000 since 2013. The figures don't make any sense without adjusting for that rise.

That's less than a 10% population rise. Yet we are already over 2013 road toll with 25% of the year to go.

As I note in the article, I have adjusted for vehicle travel. This a better adjustment than for population.

So the 41% increase is over and above how much we're driving.

Spreadsheet is here:

A few points
NZs roads can be poorly designed with poor road surfaces and non existent cambers along with predominantly chip seal not smooth seal road surfaces.
They've been playing catch up just to get projects completed that were designed decades ago but were constantly deferred.
Add in an explosion in new migrants combined with an explosion in both new vehicle sales & near record used vehicle imports & there is your road toll question answered.
As for foreigners driving ?
Yes they do not suddenly and easily become like NZ drivers overnight. They may take varying amounts of time to adapt to local style of driving. Even our fellow kiwis from other parts complain about Aucklands roads & drivers. Many Auckland drivers spend too much time tailgating.

When Aucklanders go outside the city limits they still tailgate at 100ks when they don't need to. That is one issue.
Another issue is that all the 4WDs being bought now and huge SUVs create a mismatch in momentum with the smaller and generally older cars.
By the way, these big tall things roll easily, so they pose their own risk to their drivers.
And of course there are now lots of huge heavy trucks on the road which have an even worse momentum mismatch. (Drop off in rail traffic).
I remember once driving south of Tokoroa, coming down a bend on a hill towards me was a truck whose trailer was sliding out across the road towards me!
Its pure luck that I'm here today.

When did they change the drink driving limit? Must have been around 2013. Meant to save 40 lives a year wasn't it? It's no surprise to me that people driving home after 3 or 4 beers weren't actually a problem.

yep, if National were truly doing 'evidenced based policy' they would scrap the lowered drinking limit on the basis of the evidence.

At the same time the reduced tolerance speeding policy would be scrapped too - it has demonstrably had no positive impact.

The problem with the zero tolerance is that our speed limits are all wrong. Cops are hammering people doing sensible speeds on the waikato expressway while other people get away with going one or two kms less on terrible quality roads. Why police a speed limit so vigorously when that limit is so obviously wrong.

The increased speed limit on some roads will also have reductions on others. A balanced approach. The thing is though that having done thousands of km on NZ back roads I can say speed policing there is almost non existant as the Hilux drivers seem to take advantage of. How many deaths are single vehicles on rural roads?

What cops are you talking about? I hardly see traffic police out and about anymore. Certainly compared to 5+ years ago.

Don't forget it's criminals. Remember the guy who demonstrated that half of all crashes with a fatality involved a driver with a criminal conviction. Thats a high standard and the number of people with such a conviction are a very low percentage.
But it was not 'politically correct' to target that group, so the quite safe proportion of the population are lumbered with endless promotional TV advert campaigns.
Also - think about the number of complete arses who kill themselves and their passengers fleeing a legitimate police request.

No, I don't remember it - have you got a link/reference? If correct, that would be a pretty interesting statistic.

Have a read up on JPM Bailey's research.

I look forward to this, thank you Sam

Infrastructure investment is one of the casualties of successive New Zealand governments' obsession with an extraordinary low debt target. Our roads are basically funded on a pay-as-you-go basis from current taxation even though they are designed to last for years. For years public finance experts have argued it is worthwhile borrowing to build infrastructure, as it improves welfare and GDP - but for some reason successive governments have believed they are wrong, that a poor roading system is what New Zealanders want.

As a result, the quality of our roading system was ranked 43rd out of 160 countries by the World Competitiveness Report. According to the OECD we have the 9th highest accident rate per person in the OECD (35 countries) and the second highest accident rate per kilometre of driving. Given that foreign licensed drivers were only responsible ofr 5 - 6 % of accidents (between 2010 - 2014) ; it seems that poor local drivers and poor roads have combined to make New Zealand a particularly unsafe place to drive.

Ahh, well, the money saved by not taxing people to build roads can be spent on undertakers and car repair shops.

Thanks Andrew. Have you got a link to the OECD source?

More spending or better spending? Have a read of:

Yes, I look forward to the study too. It's really useful work by NZI, Sam.

Thanks Kate!

What of the extra deaths by use of the alternative route to Picton?.
That road never designed for thr type of truck and certainly not the volume of them.

Question: who were the better civil contractors (road builders).
The MOW, or the private guys used now?
How do you drive productivities thru these guys?

We need great roads!!
(Written from The Speights Alehouse Wanaka).

Driving productivities. Not.
Was this a problem with design, how the civil contractors worked to that design - if at all, or just blasted ahead? Didn't we get a warranty on the work? :(

Big question: how can this be avoided on other large roading projects that are being done now.

"The issue appears to have been caused by the unexpected penetration of moisture through the membrane seal."

The vehicle fleet has a bubble of pre 2000 cars at the mo - caused by MOT policies to require vehicles to comply with Jap 05 and Euro 4 around 5 years ago. This reduced the imports to about half - putting up the price of used cars and therefore reducing lower income peoples access to safer cars. The rules would have also made overall emissions worse but politically it "sounded good".

There has been no new restrictions since then so the fleet should becoming safer in the next few years.
MOT would be responsible for most of the increase in deaths from the previous norms. The rules also kept safer used trucks from the fleet as well. I think the heavy truck imports dropped to around 10% of the previous level after the rule change.

It was well signalled that these rules would cost lives - but the Ministers chose to ignore it.

Annette King introduced the "killer" emissions rules and should be asked to comment on the outcome. Steven Joyce did not change them except for perhaps delaying a year. Both are responsible for trading road deaths for 'sound good" supposedly green policies - which were not even green of course.

The biggest improvement in the road toll was down to Roger Douglas who got rid of the protections on our ridiculous local assembly industry - you can see he save thousands of lives by making modern safer cars miles cheaper. The old deathtraps with drum brakes, non-collapsible steering wheels and no crash protection disappeared off the roads in a very short time. It also stopped motorbike sales which had been kept high by our high used car prices.

1) NZ doesn't have many km's of motorway. These typically have the lowest crash rate.

2) The value of life in socioeconomic analysis compared to the value of time makes it hard for safety works to stack up a) compared to other travel time improvement projects & b) if the safety work makes travel times worse, eg adding a right turn arrow, the travel time disbenefits can exceed the safety benefits.

3) NZ typically runs signalised intersections with filtering right turning traffic. Where I live all signal phasing is by approach so there is no filtering traffic & no traffic filtering through pedestrians. (it does mean wider intersections for the same capacity). Somewhere like Christchurch which has a high proportion of intersection crashes could consider this approach at some intersections.

Lets put it into perspective 277 / 4.5mil = 0.006%. How much do we spend on road safety to save an extra 0.001% of the population? Surely it could be better spent elsewhere.

Further, most of these fatalities are a direct result of illegal behavior.
1. Drinking and driving
2. Drugs and driving
3. Reckless driving (racing, evading police) etc...
4. Disobeying road rules/poor driving (Not stopping, running red lights, failing to give way, tailgating, failing to indicate, and the Taranaki Special - overtaking on double yellow lines while cresting a hill on a blind corner at night without your lights on.)

Yes, our roads are shoddy, yes our fleet is old, yes we need more motorways. But this is not what is killing us, it is straight stupidity behind the wheel.

An obvious comparison I would make is with mental health and suicide prevention.
Failures in that area costs several times more lives than our annual road toll yet receives a fraction of he funding.

Exactly when they increased the size of trucks. Now they are bigger, slower and deadlier...!!!!

It should have been obvious to everyone (it was to me).

Sam, thanks for the post.
You have excluded cyclists (17 deaths so far this year, & rising) and motorcyclists, which may complicate matters.
I have assumed you have population adjusted by using a relative (to 2013) car occupancy fatality rate.
It would be interesting to map the population adjusted fatality (and injury) rate against the following variables - a bakers dozen:
1. Average age of the vehicle fleet.
2. Annual visitor rate to nz (or numbers of tourist drivers if available).
3. Police annual positive alcohol and/or positive drug testing rates.
4. Average annual cost of petrol.
5. Average annual NZ road speeds (not sure if NZTA has the data to give a composite value).
6. Annual suicide rate.
7. Annual % of the NZ vehicle fleet that is 4WD.
8. Annual % of the vehicle fleet that are heavy goods vehicles.
9. Annual % of drivers wearing seat belts.
10. Annual % of drivers charged with using cell phone driving.
11. Annual drug seizure volumes in $ terms at the border.
12. Average annual numbers of those out on bail.

Other variables might include annual rainfall, % criminal convictions held by deceased drivers, police numbers/per head of population, and lots of others.

One more, annual alcohol consumption per head of population.

I excluded cyclists because it bounces around and because there's little in the way of reliable data on distances travelled.

It's beyond my skills to do a full statistical analysis of the behavioral and infrastructure causes, but it shouldn't be beyond the Ministry and/or NZTA's resources. Unfortunately their last two attempts at doing so have been poorly designed and were never going to answer the question of why fatality rates are up.

I should, however, be able to say something about agency and government responsiveness to the issue and whether we're focusing too much on other things Governments might care about rather than things travellers might care about. That'll be a big focus of the project.

the wet weather won't be helping. nor the kaikoura bypass.

Wouldn't worry, New Zealand is not unique. Developed countries around the world have seen this type of uptick in fatalities over the last few years and it seems to be smart phone related. That said even existing laws are rarely enforced here and, even on the rare occasion they are enforced, it's like a $80 ticket and 20 points (100 points to use with a 2 year window, loss of licence is only 3 months.) In the UK where they are really clamping down on this I believe it's almost $380 as a fine and 6 demerit points (12 points to use within a 3 year window, loss of licence for 6 months but you need to actually retake your full licence driving test to get it back) so second offence is going to be automatic disqualification and an appearance in front of a magistrate to explain yourself. I don't think Kiwis are that worried about road safety generally, she'll be right won't she? It's the Kiwi way.

So lets stop fucking around on blaming the victims, and get a permanent solution underway.

If we want road deaths to go down at the lowest cost to the NZ tax payer, then we need to start discussing how we can get level 5 autonomous vehicles on to our roads in as large numbers as possible as fast as possible.

Our (mostly) single lane roads are poorly aligned, narrow, excessively winding, badly surfaced and utterly unforgiving. I have driven on far better roads in developing countries. "State Highway 1" in South Island could better be described as "State Farm Track 1". I don't know why we ended up with such poor roads when many other countries have done so much better - other priorities I guess. I think it is a credit to the skill and consideration of New Zealand drivers that the road toll isn't higher.