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 Interest.co.nz 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.
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 interest.co.nz