The Government's new plans to improve road safety are certainly controversial. They include a variety of measures from greater emphasis on public transport, to lowering speed limits and increasing fuel excise taxes to pay for it all. Leaving aside the issue of whether raising fuel excise taxes breaks the Government's "no new taxes" promise (although the Prime Minister's explanation that fuel excise is not a tax but a duty is unbelievably cute and further evidence of an earnest naiveté that worryingly she evinces all too readily these days) the question is whether the new strategy will address our increasing road toll and promote better road safety.
Over the recent Easter holiday weekend, I did a lot of driving - from Wellington to Auckland and back, and a few other places in-between - so had the opportunity to observe closely what is going on on our roads. Here are my observations.
Most New Zealanders drive pretty responsibly and carefully, but the ones who do not, are extremely bad and dangerous. Frankly, they should not be allowed on the roads at all because of the threat they pose. Over the weekend, I saw overtaking on blind corners; ridiculous speed just for the sake of it; drivers pulling out from rural side roads into oncoming traffic and then proceeding as they were on a leisurely Sunday afternoon drive; other slow drivers unwilling to pull over to let the mounting queue of motorists behind them, of whom they were obviously oblivious, pass safely.
We have some very good stretches of main highway where driving is a pleasure. But there are significant parts of our main highways that are little more than rickety tar-sealed goat tracks, with unreasonably tight corners, poor vision and inadequate or absent warning signage. Straightening these roads from the days when they were old coach routes and eliminating the most dangerous aspects of them surely has to be a road safety priority. Indeed, we ought to be aiming to four-lane as much of State Highway One as possible to improve both traffic safety and traffic flow.
Some of the most problematic driving I saw was from long-distance truck and trailer units. I realise that truck drivers are highly skilled, and generally have much better vision from their cabs than the average motorist. But I doubt that I saw any of them complying with the 90 kmh speed limit, nor did I see any Police stopping them. Incredibly, I did see big rigs passing each other on passing lanes, holding up much traffic behind them, then speeding up to avoid being passed.
Surprisingly, despite the egregiously sanctimonious advertisement on television at present, I saw very few Police. There was a handful of speed cameras, but a physical Police presence seemed noticeably absent. Where they were visible, Police invariably seemed to be stationed at the start and end, or, even worse, the middle, of passing lanes, presumably because that is where the speeding infringement pickings are best. I realise that the Police do not really like doing road safety, because they do not regard it as "real" Police work, but their lazy and mistaken belief that good road policing is all about speeding infringements (no, I was not caught speeding over the weekend!) rather than promoting good driving behaviours is simplistic and short-sighted. When, for example, have you ever seen the Police pull over the unreasonably slow driver, or the one with the precariously overloaded trailer or ute? No, the speeding motorist is the far easier prey.
A truly effective road safety strategy needs to focus on the following issues: better roading engineering and improved road conditions; getting the serially dangerous drivers off the roads altogether, whatever their age or circumstances; stricter policing of long-distance trucking; and, a change in the Police attitude to a more positive approach to road safety, rather than a continuation of its current infringement centred fixation.
Addressing these issues are specific positive steps to improving road safety and lowering the road toll. Yet none of them seems to feature in this week's Government announcements. So, as you pay your extra fuel taxes in the years to come, you be the judge of whether we really care about road safety in this country.
Dunne Speaks is having a couple of weeks off, and will be back at the end of April.