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Steven Joyce: Holiday road toll too high, safer regional roads urgently needed

OPINION:

One of the most sobering parts of being Transport Minister is dealing with the toll of people killed and severely injured as they use the transport system.

The Perpignan air crash and the Fox Glacier skydiving plane disaster both stick clearly in my mind from my tenure in the portfolio, plus the unrelenting nature of the toll on our roads.

Every holiday weekend I’d watch grimly for the latest news on fatalities and injuries. My heart goes out to all the families and individuals affected by road crashes over this current holiday period.

As Transport Minister you get to make decisions that may reduce that toll. The Key Government’s Safer Journeys programme managed to bring it down initially by focusing in on young drivers, impaired drivers (especially recidivist ones), speed enforcement, and motorcycle safety.

Measures like lifting the driving age to 16, a zero alcohol limit for young drivers, tougher speed enforcement, and introducing a cell phone use rule all contributed to reducing the toll below 300 in 2011, and then to 253, the lowest ever, in 2013.

Since then it has sadly started to rise again, reaching 319 last year despite Auckland’s three-month lockdown. The billions of kilometres driven also rose significantly pre-Covid so the raw numbers don’t tell the full story. Nevertheless the trend isn’t going the right way.

The current Government’s regulatory focus seems to be on reducing speed limits. I am unconvinced about the likelihood of broad success there. Most speed-related serious crashes occur with at least one driver already operating well outside existing speed limits or other road rules.

If you are not respecting the current limit, are you more likely to respect a lower one?

Greater enforcement of existing limits would seem likely to pay higher dividends, along with a renewed focus on impaired driving and the category of aptly named high-risk drivers.

There is a sneaking suspicion that lower speed limits are the favoured tool of the anti-car lobby, who may perhaps not be happy until we are back to cars travelling at walking speed with a little man in front waving a red flag.

The medium and long-term fix for the road toll is undoubtedly building safer roads, and safer vehicles. In terms of safer roads, separating opposing lanes of traffic, building sufficient passing opportunities to reduce driver frustration and improve journey times, and reducing the number of intersections between side roads and busy highways all pays permanent dividends in reducing road carnage.

The current Government deserves credit for focusing on one of these: median barriers. They are targeting 300km of new barriers in three years. Sadly, execution seems a problem again, with around one tenth of that distance built after one year.

Where they have dropped the ball is in building safer, more fit-for-purpose highways linking our major regional centres. These are needed where traffic density is such that the margin of error for drivers is small, and long lines of traffic with few passing opportunities increase driver frustration.

Building four-lane highways to improve safety may seem a forlorn task when considering New Zealand’s 11,000km of state highway. However most of the traffic flows on relatively short sections of the network.

A report a decade ago showed that one third of all state highway traffic travelled on just 714km of highway, and I doubt it has changed much since. If we could ensure all of that traffic was travelling on separated four lane highways that would represent a major contribution to a safe, efficient roading network and a lower road toll.

Some of these roads already exist (particularly in larger urban areas), and the Roads of National Significance programme of the past decade has added another 120km to it, notably the Waikato Expressway, Christchurch motorway expansion, and Wellington to Otaki. Another couple of decades of hard work and we’d be there.

The next projects, like Warkworth to Wellsford, Tauranga to Katikati, Cambridge to Tirau, Rolleston to Ashburton are all well known, because of both their current very poor safety records and the Government’s off-again on again approach to building them. The stark fact is that over the four plus years this Government has been in office no big new projects have started construction.

Worse still, most of the projects the Government inherited mid-construction have been subject to big delays since they took over. Granted some are due to Covid lockdowns, but why we needed to lock down major infrastructure projects when we trust contractors to make other life and death health and safety decisions on-site is a mystery.

And the incompetence involved in further delaying the opening of Transmission Gully because of incomplete paper shuffling is beyond belief.

Some would say building new roads is expensive, and it is, although nothing compared to say, a light rail project. Road users pay around $4 billion a year in direct charges for exactly this sort of investment.

In recent years that money has been siphoned off more and more into other spending plans. The Government seems to have money to burn in transport. Witness the tens of millions wasted on the abandoned bike bridge and similar sums being spent to re-open a never-profitable Dunedin railway workshop from a bygone era.

New reliable transport linkages boost economic activity in the regions that are linked to the major centres. This is very helpful in a country where we need to boost regional economic performance beyond Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch into the surrounding hinterland.

A decade ago, as Transport Minister I was being told by the political left that building roads was out of date because of climate change and the like. We should apparently be building mass transit systems like in Europe, never mind that our population density is 15 per cent of that of the EU, and 5 per cent of England and Wales.

Since that time personal mobility via four wheels continues to increase in popularity. Kilometres driven have increased by another 20 per cent, it has become increasingly clear that new forms of motive power will successfully address transport emissions, and advances in telecommunication (ultrafast broadband) prove that we can live more remotely and travel to meetings that can’t be handled via zoom, a trend that is likely to reduce inner-city commuting and increase inter-regional travel.

We need to get on with building a safer, more fit for purpose, regional roading system. We’ve already wasted four years, let’s not waste more.

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