Bump in the road over idea cutting speed limits will save lives
Source: https://www.stuff.co.nz/news/113363136/-

2019-06-11 20:52:08

Kaikōura's volunteer fire chief has pretty much seen it all.

In his 32 years in the job, Ian Walker has been out to more road crashes than he cares to remember, partly because he's a fireman and partly because he owns a vehicle salvage and repair shop.

"You could walk around my yard now and see vehicles everywhere," he said.

"The number of accidents varies – sometimes it might be three a week, then one, then four."

Many of these are on State Highway 1, and in one particularly awkward stretch the NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) has stepped in to make a change.

Last year it cut the speed limit for a section of about 12km linking Cheviot and Kaikōura over the Hundalee Hills – already reduced from 100kmh to 80kmh following the 2016 earthquake – further to 60kmh.

It is a tricky, winding road, precariously steep in some parts and notorious for drivers cutting corners. In 2016 a Christchurch couple were killed in a head-on crash with a truck, while two years earlier a truck driver died after his vehicle rolled off a bank.

NZTA lowered the speed limit in December in a bid to reduce crashes, but the typical speed through the area between 55kmh and 59kmh anyway.

But the move raised eyebrows with some who believe cutting speed can contribute to making roads less safe.

Walker suggests a very human trait still makes the section dangerous – impatience.

"It's made zero impact," he said. "Sixty kilometres per hour is absolutely ridiculous. People get impatient travelling at 60kmh, so they start passing."

One who knows that all too well is truck driver Owen Thornley, from food supply company Talley's.

He has transported frozen goods between the company's two factories in Ashburton and Blenheim every week for the last seven or eight years, clocking up hundreds of thousands of kilometres.

His journey takes him over the Hundalee Hills, and he has found recently that his 54-tonne truck and trailer, now driving at 60kmh, leaves motorists frustrated.

"My personal opinion is that it's obviously safer but it's holding traffic up. The [drivers] behind you, because you can't get a run up the hills, are getting impatient."

As a result, cars pass on blind corners, and Thornley guesses more than half are not sticking to the speed limit.

When asked if cutting speed had reduced accidents, Walker said no.

"They are still happening all the time."


In 2018 the Government embarked on a three-year mission to improve road safety, an ambitious plan spearheaded by cutting speed in key areas.

Some $1.4 billion is being invested in improvements like new barriers, passing lanes and wider shoulders, with the hope of upgrading 870km of high-risk state highways by 2021.

NZTA was asked to identify the top 10 per cent of the road network that would result in the greatest reduction of death and serious injuries.

Auckland, Waikato and Canterbury are all on the radar for where the greatest safety gains can be made, and new speed limits could be brought in within three years.

Such lofty goals are not without need.

In 2019 so far, 172 people have been killed on New Zealand's roads, six more than at the same time last year.

Ministry of Transport (MoT) data for 2016, the most recent available on its website, makes for sobering reading – 328 deaths from 286 fatal road crashes, or 0.9 deaths for every 10,000 vehicles.

There were also 12,456 people injured from 9682 crashes, amounting to 265 people hurt in accidents on our roads for every 100,000 of the population.

Long-term road safety data from NZTA suggests speed limits on almost 90 per cent of the country's roads are too high and should be lowered.

Cutting them to between 60kmh and 80kmh on most open roads would improve safety, while just 5 per cent should retain the current 100kmh limit.

NZTA's mapping tools suggest there would also be benefits from reducing limits in towns and cities to between 30kmh and 40kmh.

​NZTA is expected to announce a list of areas for proposed lower speed limits in the next week or so, and the public will be consulted.


Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter believes so, saying last week it would "make sense" to reduce limits on some roads with lower volumes of traffic.

Transport Minister Phil Twyford was more unequivocal.

"It's pretty clear from the data that NZTA have put forward that we can do a lot better," he said.

"We can be much more clinical at getting the right speed limit for the right piece of road. If we do that I think we will prevent a lot of deaths and serious injuries."

AA bosses have a slightly different perspective, arguing cutting limits does not necessarily improve road safety.

Canterbury and West Coast AA chairman Roy Hughes welcomed reductions to 80kmh on major roads without a central barrier.

But he echoed Walker's view that imposing an artificially slow limit drives motorists to take unnecessary risks, pointing to the Hundalee Hills example.

"[Trucks] don't have enough speed to get up hills and over the top, so hold up traffic and, because of loss of momentum, they can't pull into slow vehicle lanes, so stay in the central lane all the way.

"Car drivers still think the road is safe to travel at 80kmh so they pull out."


Overseas, the theory that slower speeds equals fewer deaths is being put to the test.

In Japan, speed limits on two major roads were lifted earlier this year from 100kmh to 120kmh in a 12-month experiment.

A previous trial raising them from 100kmh to 110kmh did not trigger a marked increase in crashes, police found.

Australia also made a brief foray between 2014 and 2016 to derestrict main roads in the Northern Territory.

Yet the idea of speed playing a key role in crashes and deaths on New Zealand's roads is hard to shake off – and not without good reason.

Looking again at figures for 2016, MoT analysis found speed contributed to 79 fatal crashes that caused 93 deaths, 512 serious injuries and 1759 minor injuries, leaving a "social cost" to the nation estimated at $879 million.

"The more serious the crash, the more likely it is that speed was a contributing factor," the MoT said.

"In New Zealand, for the years 2014 to 2016, driver speed was a factor in 30 per cent of fatal crashes, 21 per cent of serious injury crashes and 16 per cent of minor injury crashes."

Caroline Perry, New Zealand director of the road safety charity Brake, says speed is key to road safety because of the role it plays in crash outcomes.

"It's simple physics – the faster you're travelling, the greater the forces involved in a crash, and the more likely you are to be killed or seriously injured.

"We have a horrific number of road deaths and injuries on our roads. Crashes cost us $4.8 billion every year."

A report from the International Transport Forum last year looked at speed limit case studies from several countries.

"The pattern was the same in all cases," Perry said. "Where speed limits were lowered, the number and severity of crashes decreased, where speed limits were raised, the number and severity of crashes increased.

"International evidence also tells us that speed limits in urban areas and outside schools where people on foot and bike mix with motorised vehicles should be 30kmh."

Speed on New Zealand's roads has actually fallen over the last 20 years or so.

The MoT's annual speed survey, discontinued in 2016, showed the average speed of cars on open roads in 1996 was 102.3kmh, with 56 per cent of cars clocked travelling over 100kmh.

In 2015 that average was down to 95.7kmh, with 23 per cent caught over the speed limit.

It is a similar situation in towns and cities – in 1996 the average speed was 56.5kmh, and by 2015 that had fallen to 50.4kmh.

Crashes and deaths from speed have also dropped over the last three decades.

In 1987 there were 251 fatal crashes where speed played a role, a figure which fell to 123 in 2001 and 79 in 2016

Yet since 1990 the number of vehicles on the roads has gone up by 88 per cent.


Canterbury University's Professor Simon Kingham, chief science adviser at the MoT, says reducing speed can have benefits beyond safety, such as incentivising people to walk and use their communities better, which can improve health.

"What we have in New Zealand is lots of roads, in the country particularly, that can be quite windy and narrow and in some cases just gravel, and yet we have an open national speed limit of 100kmh. That is not appropriate and not safe."

While work is being carried out to improve road infrastructure – though it emerged last week much could be hampered by funding issues – Kingham said doing so carries vast expense.

"We can straighten every curve, seal every road and put median barriers in the middle of every road, but that's going to be a huge amount of money.

"A much cheaper way is to encourage people to drive a bit slower."

There are those who argue cutting speed limits will affect the nation's economy.

Nick Leggett, chief executive of trucking industry body the Road Transport Forum, worries such a move will "slow New Zealand down".

"We would support evidence that shows that if you lower speed at a particular location it will save people's lives," he said.

"But it will take longer to get critical goods to market, increase frustrations and reduce productivity as people and goods are slowed down, and the economy will suffer.

"On the back of a truck you get your supermarket shelves stocked, you get medication going to hospitals and you get export goods going to market.

"You make it harder for that stuff to happen and you are going to slow the economy down."

A long, thin country of "poor quality roads" needs "a New Zealand solution".

"Let's get all the related parties around the table and work forward on a principle basis – what are the causes of accidents, what are the things that we can all agree on that are going to get the best results in terms of improved safety.

"That might involve some trial, and we should be open to that."

Back on the Hundalee Hills, Thornley cannot say if he feels more or less safe now the speed limit has changed.

"It's six of one, half a dozen of the other.

"You want to get home to see your family at the end of every day, you don't want to have an accident, which you probably will have when cars are passing you when they shouldn't."

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