Don‘t shut up shop on new, safe roads

6 MinutesBy NZ Trucking magazineOctober 8, 2018

Most people don’t think too much about how transport is funded in New Zealand, says AA motoring affairs general manager Mike Noon.

In a press release, Noon said a number of roading projects that were previously on the books are now being re-evaluated by the government, and this could have an adverse effect on road safety.

“Whether its roads, public transport, cycleways or footpaths, the money that pays for all the ways we get from A to B comes mostly from fuel taxes and road user charges, but also property rates, public transport fares, and vehicle registration fees.

So when the Government recently announced a record $16.9b investment in transport for the next three years, that‘s because New Zealanders are paying more taxes than ever before.

More taxes is not something people will ever jump for joy about but there is a grudging acceptance of paying a bit more for better transport – ‘better‘ being the crucial word.

So the Government has set some big expectations and generally have wide support for their plans, including from AA Members. The AA is however concerned that the only place that investment has been cut is an 18% drop in funding for state highway improvements. This is significant. A number of roading projects that were previously on the books are now being re-evaluated.

Improved road safety

The Government has signalled $4.3b of the transport budget will be focussed on road safety and the AA is right behind that commitment.

When we talk about dangerous stretches of road you’ll sometimes see comments like “roads don’t kill people”. Well actually, the road environment does make a big difference to the outcomes of a crash. When roads are upgraded less people die and are hurt.

In New Zealand we have had stretches of highway with terrible crash records and then seen the numbers drop massively by adding safety features like centreline barriers, rumble strips and better designed intersections. Safety features are like an emergency chute if you are skydiving. Hopefully everything goes to plan but on those rare occasions when the main parachute fails, a back-up can be the difference between life and death.

It‘s no coincidence that countries with better road safety records than New Zealand have higher quality roads and an important part of global leader Sweden‘s work was doubling the amount of roads with centreline barriers from 2002-2015.

Large-scale engineering work to lift the safety standard of our highways and regional roads is going to be a crucial part of turning around New Zealand’s poor road safety record. The Government‘s commitment to safety upgrades on existing roads is great news, but at the same time some major roading projects that would vastly improve safety have very unclear futures.

Roading projects in limbo

If you were identifying stretches of highway with consistently bad crash rates, SH1 from Otaki to Levin and SH2 from Tauranga to Waihi are among the worst in the country.

Projects had been underway to create new, much safer sections of highway that also reflect the growing populations and traffic in those regions, but these are now in limbo, along with a number of other new highway projects around the country.

It is simply not possible to retrofit the existing SH1 north of Wellington and SH2 in Bay of Plenty to the same safety standards that a brand new road would deliver. It is hard to see how, if safety is the number one priority, the Government could pull the plug on the new stretches of highway that were already planned.

Having done a lot of work to build support within the local communities for the new roads, no one wins by having these projects delayed and go back to the drawing board.

The AA agrees we need to encourage all transport modes, but there are still times and places where new, modern, extremely safe roads are needed.

Countries we look to overseas have extensive networks of multi-lane divided highways. That‘s a big part of their superior safety records and it‘s also why we hear comments from international visitors saying they ‘enjoyed the scenic route‘ from Auckland to Wellington on SH1, but think they‘ll take the ‘main highway‘ for the trip back.

Even with future technology predicted to change some of the ways people move around, and the Government‘s commitment to grow modes of transport other than driving, if our population, freight and tourism all continue to increase in the decades ahead New Zealand will need roads that are built to safely handle those volumes of traffic.

That‘s not something we can afford to do all at once but we need to make continual progress towards it and shutting up shop on new, safer highways will have its own costs for safety and congestion in the longer term.”