Paul Durdin, Transportation Engineer/Director at Abley Transportation Consultants, looks at the complex issue of road safety.
There are so many facets to improving road safety, where do you start?
The land transport environment is a highly complex system where everyone has a role to play – from transport agencies and system designers through to vehicle manufacturers.
New Zealand, along with many other countries, has adopted the ‘Safe System’ approach to road safety. This approach is based on creating a forgiving road system, whereby it’s acknowledged that people make mistakes and have limited ability to withstand crash forces. Under the Safe System approach, all components of the system including roads and roadsides, speeds, vehicles, and road use, need to be improved and strengthened, so that if one fails, the other components will still protect people in a crash.
The Safe System represents a fundamental shift away from the way road safety has been viewed in the past. A key aspect is the change from a culture of blame, to one of accepting human vulnerability.
Perhaps part of the problem is linked to the personal likelihood of being involved in an injury crash. Based on 2016 figures, there was one reported injury crash in New Zealand for every 4.5 million kilometres driven. This means that someone driving 15,000 km a year, would need to drive the equivalent of 300 years to become a statistic.
That statistic potentially promotes a culture of complacency and blaming others, because individually each of us is very unlikely to be injured in a crash. The reality is different though. Not everyone gets through life without being involved in a crash on our roads. Many people lose their lives and many more are seriously injured, and the vast majority of those involve a mistake they or someone else makes.
One of the biggest issues is that we’re impatient drivers. We want to drive with the sort of speed that we demand in many other aspects of our lives. But this mentality is not appropriate for most of our roads. We’ve inherited a system with a default 100km/h speed limit for rural roads and 50km/h for urban roads. If these roads were built today, most would have lower limits.
What can be done to improve safety outcomes? The answer is a lot, but it requires a cohesive effort on multiple fronts. Individually, we all need to slow down both literally and figuratively. Speed is the most critical element in determining the severity of a crash. Small changes in travel speeds can have dramatic safety consequences. That, along with putting the mobile phone out of reach and increasing awareness of others using the transport system while we drive, will go a long way to improving safety on our roads.
Concerted efforts are also needed to reduce the average age of New Zealand’s vehicle fleet – which now stands at 14 years. Extraordinary advances have been made to develop the much-vaunted self-driving car but it’s still early days. From a road safety perspective this technology could prove to be the silver bullet we’re looking for. So, can we wait for computers and technology to save us?
If our take-up of new vehicles is anything to go by, then autonomous vehicles will not form the majority of the fleet for at least two decades. And to meet that highly optimistic (perhaps fanciful) outcome, autonomous vehicles would need to be on the market by 2020; legislative changes would need to be put in place to remove older vehicles from the fleet quickly, and manufacturers would need to move away from designing traditional vehicles. Whether all three of these factors can come together in a short space of time is a big unknown.
Our roads and roadsides need significant attention to help protect people from death and serious injury. Great work is being done, particularly on our main highways. But much of the country’s network remains in desperate need of upgrade to handle the increasing traffic, particularly outside of the highway network where crash rates are increasing disproportionately quickly.
Incremental improvements that cover large parts of the network, such as rumble strips, improved surfacing and delineation, and appropriate speed limits will be as, if not more important, than individual upgrades that are capital intensive and can only address small sections of the network at a time. Innovation in the way investment is targeted and delivered will also be vital.
As a country, I think that we still have a long way to go if we are to truly embrace the Safe System approach. So often, people point the finger at others, whether it’s tourists, young drivers, older drivers, truck drivers, fast drivers, slow drivers … it always seems to be that someone else needs to change if road safety is to be improved.
I personally have the opportunity to influence road safety outcomes not only through my own behaviour as a road user, but also through my career as a professional transportation engineer. Whether my work will ever result in a life being saved is difficult to know – mainly because we measure lives lost, not lives saved. Am I disheartened? Definitely not. Do I think we can do better as a country? Absolutely. It just requires individual and collective effort to prioritise and embed road safety throughout our culture.
To view the article published by The Christchurch Press and Stuff online: