Impaired numbers

In Newsletter Editorial5 MinutesBy Gavin MyersSeptember 15, 2023

I’m told the 1960s and 1970s were quite the decades to be alive. Unless, that is, you happened to be involved in an automobile accident. I had this thought when I came across the news article How New Zealand drastically reduced its road toll in 50 years on The Spinoff a little while ago.

A bit of digging into the Ministry of Transport’s statistics revealed 1973 to be the worst year on record in New Zealand, with 843 recorded road deaths. For those with a morbid curiosity, the numbers steadily trended up from the first year on record, 1921 (69), breaking the 300 mark in 1953, the 400 mark in ’64, the 500 mark in ’65, 600 in ’70, and 700 in ’72, before the fateful high of 1973.

While there were dips and rises in the numbers through the 1970s and 1980s, it wasn’t until 1994 that the numbers really came under some sort of control (580) and began a positive trend downward to 253 in 2013 – a more than 50% decline over 21 years. The most recent year on this particular list is 2021, during which 318 people sadly perished on our roads. For context, the last times similar numbers were seen pre that 2013 low were 1949 (218) and 1953 (313).

None of this is to make light of lives lost or reduce them to simple numbers; one life needlessly lost is one too many. However it does illustrate that despite the exponential increase of vehicles, drivers and other road users over the decades, efforts to curb the road toll would appear to not be in vain.

Thanks in part to increasingly stringent crash regulation, active and passive safety systems in new vehicles today are the most advanced they’ve ever been, while each generation of new models is engineered and built to offer a higher level of occupant protection than their predecessors. And modern-build roads are engineered for safety at a level either not considered or attained in decades gone by. That’s just by way of example, there are of course many other factors that contribute positively.

Nevertheless, more remains to be done. The weakest link in the road-safety chain has and will always be the human factor. Engineering vehicles and roads around our failings, mishaps and propensity for complacency can only achieve so much, perhaps indicated by the plateau in the road toll stats over the past decade. The rest, it appears, is up to us as drivers, road users, and law enforcement.

However, I firmly believe that so long as it’s up to us, as human beings, a target of zero, if even achieved at all, cannot be sustained – but there is absolutely no reason we can’t further still drastically reduce the current road toll. I’ve said before that I believe the targeted 40% reduction in deaths and serious injury from the 2018 figure by 2030 is more than achievable. To put a number on it, if we work off the Ministry’s list, 40% of 378 fatalities is 227.

With alcohol and drug impairment among the leading causes of serious accidents, quoted as a factor in 43% of fatal crashes, it was encouraging that the government got its roadside drug testing plans back on track last month. If that problem can be successfully addressed, we’d already be well on the way to meeting that 40% target. While increasing the police’s ability to detect the use of substances as well as stricter tolerances, penalties and sentences are definitely a step in the right direction, it’s only one set of tools in a widespread arsenal that should be deployed to tackle the problem.

It’s akin to treating the symptom and not the cause – the real challenge is tackling the amount of substance use in the first place, a whole other topic with even wider ramifications for society…

Take care out there,

Gavin Myers