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The NZ Initiative's Sam Warburton looks at the rising road toll again and asks why transport provision is responsive to government rather than the individuals, families, businesses and communities that use it

The NZ Initiative's Sam Warburton looks at the rising road toll again and asks why transport provision is responsive to government rather than the individuals, families, businesses and communities that use it

By Sam Warburton*

In my previous piece for Interest, I wrote that government agencies’ response to the rising road toll was inadequate. The Ministry of Transport, the NZ Transport Agency and the Police each essentially blamed drivers.

In this, my final piece on safety for a while, I want to acknowledge that not all agencies have been so defensive. I also want to raise concerns about a system that puts politicians, rather than users, at its heart.

Agency responses

Auckland Transport (AT) recently published a commendable briefing for local boards setting out several plausible contributors beyond driver behaviour. One factor is residential developments along roads intended for lighter traffic. Another is the increasing diversity of road users such as more cyclists, pedestrians and motorcyclists along with unforgiving cars and trucks.

Whatever the true causes, there are many more variables at play than can be simply written-off as bad behaviour. The rising road toll is also an issue that can’t be untangled without intensive statistical analysis. That’s why I called on government agencies to hire statisticians who can.

The Ministry of Transport and the NZ Transport Agency appear to have realised this. Both have recently advertised for the skills that will help address the problem.

However, while identifying what’s going on is a necessary part of addressing the problem, it is not sufficient on its own.

If there are cost-effective interventions and we, as transport users and as communities, think the rising road toll is worth addressing, Government and its agencies still need to respond.

Government had a chance to act earlier

If electrocutions increased 40% over four years, we’d expect electricity companies to look into why. And then to do something about it.

Transport might differ from many other services due to the vast array of ways things can go wrong. But the apparently lethargic response was a concern.

It turns out that government actually had a chance to act earlier.

According to documents released under the Official Information Act, the Ministry of Transport advised the Minister (Simon Bridges) in late 2016 that the road toll was increasing. The Ministry also advised the Minister of options to improve safety. Such options included road improvements and more road safety education and advertising.

One document says that local councils also raised safety concerns:

Some council representatives worried about the impact of prioritising large road projects over smaller projects which could have a bigger combined impact.

Concerns with…other good BCR [benefit-cost ratio] safety projects being pushed out.

The Ministry's analysis supported councils’ concerns.  The Ministry noted that many unfunded road safety improvement projects exist. In general, these projects have higher benefit-cost ratios than other projects. This meant that more investment in road safety improvements, funded by deferring other projects, would increase the overall economic and social return of transport investment.

What did the Government do with the Ministry’s advice?

The Ministry of Transport’s analysis informed the Minister’s deliberations on the draft Government Policy Statement (GPS) 2018.

The GPS is the document by which the Government sets its objectives for land transport. The GPS also includes budgets for activities including state highways, local roads, public transport, walking and cycling, road policy, and road safety promotion. Funding for this expenditure comes from the National Land Transport Fund made up of petrol excise duty and road user charges.

Increasing safety was one of many choices offered to the Minister during preparation of the draft GPS 2018. Other choices included a freight focus, regional development and resilience, and urban development.

A final choice was to do away with Government direction. This option involved the NZ Transport Agency simply doing the projects with the highest economic and social returns per dollar spent, whether they were freight, safety or anything else.

The former Government opted to continue with the focus set out in GPS 2015 and 2012. The Ministry’s documents describe that as ‘first and foremost about freight, commercial and employment outcomes, with safety and cost-efficiency as secondary outcomes’.

How big is the opportunity?

The documents the Ministry released are light on specific projects, but information published by the NZ Transport Agency indicates that there are eight stretches of state highway overdue for improvement. One overdue project is the location of the horrific Taupō crash I wrote about last time.

These eight projects are, however, only the tip of the iceberg. They are the projects we can see because they made the cut. There will be many projects that didn’t make the cut because they didn’t align with Government priorities.

Auckland Transport’s briefing, for instance, says there are 300 high-risk intersections in Auckland alone, but only enough funding to fix two or three. One constraint will be a lack of money from the National Land Transport Fund due to other Government priorities.

How can people effect change?

The current planning system for land transport allows Government to set direction. The former Government’s decision might align with your preferences. It might instead be that the new Government’s direction aligns with your preferences.

It strikes me as strange, though, that we let government have such a strong say about transport. Why is transport provision responsive to government rather than the individuals, families, businesses and communities that use it?

The former Minister even explicitly declined an option that would have seen projects of most value to users (projects with the highest benefit-cost ratios) pursued. As with the Labour-led government before them, the former Minister’s preference was to retain control.

Over the next year, The New Zealand Initiative’s transport project will look at whether there might be other ways of delivering transport.

Meanwhile, the new Government will look to issue its own Government Policy Statement. A draft will be prepared, and public consultation undertaken.

If you are unhappy with the road toll or any other aspect of land transport, this will likely be your first and most important opportunity to express that over the next three years.


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

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Some things just work better when done together as a society. Those things tend to be, but are not limited to: Healthcare, Education, Transport, Emergency Services, Civil Defence, Conservation and Social Services.

If you're concerned about the road toll, get people on public transport.

Allow me to speculate. I think that the road toll has increased because we've had a massive influx of foreigners moving here, and our driving culture has become confused. If you've been to other countries adapting to their driving etiquette can be quite a shock, but they all seem to work in their own special ways, but when you jam them together they become dysfunctional. Like a NZer trying to cross the road in Vietnam on arrival for instance.


Well I am (or was ) a foreigner who came here 22 years ago and having lived and driven in the UK (incl London for 9) I was quite shocked how bad kiwi born drivers are. In fact they are mad and take insane risks IMHO that lead to stupid and pointless deaths.


I would second that steven. If there is a higher road toll, it tends to mean more people had accidents, which usually would be related to poor decision making or driver error. In situations where someone has a seizure while driving and has a crash, or where a part of the car failed badly enough that an accident was unavoidable, making safer roads seems unlikely to have a huge impact on reducing the road toll. However, if you stay on your side of the road and the other car going the other way does as well, then you tend not to collide. Physics.


If a safety upgrade installs a median barrier, you tend to stay on your side of the road regardless. How many deaths this year have involved head on collisions?


There is political interference on the one hand which we will say is negative but on the other hand a Government should be taking the long view and setting the strategic direction/policy. Then there is also fragmenting transport into artificial segments such as "roads" when in fact the better National solution might be rail, sea or air transport. So yes this entire area needs to be improved IMHO.

The problem with expecting "individuals, families, businesses and communities" to make the right decision is why will they? especially if they lack any expertese or long term viewpoint.

Example with Peak oil mass cars are toast inside of 20 years, ergo people may want better roads but putting more / bigger roads in when they wont be of significant value inside of 20 years makes no economic sense long term.



Having thought about out for a moment I am not sure it is that strange (to allow government to set direction).

Government is the body we have to fund such activities and if we expect them to accountable then I can't see how you can pass the funds on to any other body without strings attached.


"The Ministry of Transport, the NZ Transport Agency and the Police each essentially blamed drivers."

That's because in just about all instances, it is the driver.

Go look through the news at the last 20 fatalities. None were road conditions (council/govt), none were due to mechanical failures (private business eg. Manufacturers/mechanics), none were due to inconsistent road rules (NZTA), and none were adverse driving conditions (weather)

They were all driver error.

There are large swathes of people out there that simply aren't capable drivers.

As this issue impacts us all, then it falls on the govt to fix it. There are a lot of things they can do, but most Kiwi's are too shortsighted and pig headed to agree to them.


Why are so many more driver errors leading to death than happened in previous decades?


1974 Toyota Corolla curb weight: 880kg
2017 Toyota Corolla curb weight: 1250kg (42% increase) and that's a smallish car.
2017 Audi Q7 curb weight: 2330kg

E=mv^2... physics wins.


I'm not sure what you are getting at Sam.
"One factor is residential developments along roads intended for lighter traffic." - If you build more houses along a narrow road, then there are more cars on this narrow road. I'm not sure how that makes you hit another car. Unless just statistically there are more idiots or drunk drivers or speeders who can't control their vehicle. So the problem is driver behaviour.

"Another is the increasing diversity of road users such as more cyclists, pedestrians and motorcyclists along with unforgiving cars and trucks." If I see a cyclist, I don't suddenly have an irresistible urge to swerve my car into him. This statement sounds like bureaucrats trying to say "driver error" in a different way.

Just looking through your previous article…
I note that you point to less speed cameras possibly being a factor, due to lack of funding to the police. I guess you are inferring that as less people are caught speeding, they get complacent, and speed more, leading to more accidents which also lead to higher morbidity and mortality. In other words, more driver error, but due to lack of negative reinforcement. I would probably agree in principle to this as being part of the answer, much more so than millions in improving road safety. From a cold, hard, statistical point of view, if we also increased our penalties for traffic infringements, we would also see a reduction in accidents and severity due to this aspect. For example, if every drunk driver caught got the death penalty, we would nearly eliminate drunk drivers as a cause of road fatalities. On a more realistic scale, if a speeding ticket was $10,000 or loss of license rather than $100, there would be less people speeding. Bet you most people would whine and moan about higher penalties, until it's their kid in the hospital from someone else speeding. You could even fund those extra speed cameras.


page 37
114. For example, in 2016, provisional road toll data indicates that:
• 42 percent of fatal crashes had drugs and/or alcohol as a contributing factor
• 39 percent of drivers and 42 percent of passengers killed in car accidents were not wearing seatbelts
Also if I remember correctly about 94% of all crashes come down to human factors, about 4% the state of the vehicle and about 2% other factors like the road.

That said there is a lot NZ can do to road design.
The Swede's fatality rate is about 1/3 NZ (2.0 per 100,000pop vs 6.0 and they have a vision

If the Government had the wisdom to put congestion tolling in place in Auckland (at a minimum) we could delay & spread out over time the hugely expensive urban highway projects, increase the number of people using PT which is safer, and spend the deferred capital on safety works instead.