Hi-tech tactics to fight road toll

TOM HUNT
Last updated 05:00 01/01/2014

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The lowest annual road toll in more than 60 years will be followed up by hi-tech efforts to drive it even lower.

Cars with sensors that control their speed and following distance, and that ensure they stay in their lane, are all part of "transformational" technology being looked at during the next four years.

A Government action plan entitled Intelligent Transport System even discusses the possibility of fully automated vehicles that do not need a driver.

"Cars of the future may be so well-equipped that they are almost impossible to crash," Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee writes in the foreword to the plan.

As the new year approached last night, there had been 254 deaths on the roads - the lowest since 1950.

However, the toll over the holiday period has not shown a similar decline. By last night, six people had died since Boxing Day - the same number as in the entire Christmas and New Year period last year. The holiday period does not end till 6am on Friday.

Ministry of Transport land transport manager Leo Mortimer said 2013's low toll was thanks to better driver attitudes, vehicles and roads, as well as tighter restrictions for younger drivers.

Lowering future tolls would mean focusing harder on those factors, while advances in technology would form "a real major part of road safety advancements".

Computers inside cars and roads so that they could "talk to each other", and cars that automatically stayed within lanes, were two technologies already emerging. "The car will be able to determine the speed of the vehicle," Mr Mortimer said.

The draft Intelligent Transport System plan says automated cars could "revolutionise the concept of transport", with profound implications for road safety. It would also benefit people who were now unable to drive.

The Government plans to use "all available channels" this year to promote New Zealand as a testing ground for new technology. The ministry and the Transport Agency would look at clarifying the legality of driverless cars, the draft report says.

Michael Woodhouse, Associate Transport Minister, said the next step in road safety was to make better use of technology to keep drivers safe. "There's technology available that will be more forgiving of our mistakes."

Sensor technology that would stop the motorist turning into or hitting another vehicle was an example of technology that could make driving safer, and the Government needed to make sure the infrastructure was in place to support it.

"I don't imagine a time where you put on autopilot and turn around and have a cup of tea - drivers will always need to have their wits about them even with the technology.'

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NZTA road safety director Ernst Zollner said 2013's toll was not cause for celebration. "It should be a call to action because a transport system that kills and maims thousands of people every year is not sustainable."

NZTA aspired to have nobody killed or injured on the roads and aimed to stop crashes happening or, when there was one, to minimise their impact.

Assistant commissioner of road policing Dave Cliff said technology such as airbags and stability control was already common. But self-driving cars - already pioneered by Google - were getting "better and better" and had safety benefits.

Police would back following Sweden's lead of cars that would not start if the driver failed a breath-alcohol test built into the car.

Police were also enforcing a 4kmh threshold for speeding this holiday period.

Figures were not available for the number of tickets issued, but Mr Cliff said most drivers stayed below the speed limit and those who were ticketed were "incredibly apologetic".

Although the national toll was at a record low, all three main centres had more road deaths last year than in 2012. In Wellington, 17 people died last year, compared with 11 in 2012. Canterbury recorded 50 deaths, its worst toll since 2007, and the first time in four years that it has been higher than Auckland's.

The latest death during the holiday period was that of a motorcyclist on State Highway 1 north of Bulls. Police believe he may have been lying beside the road for several hours.

The man, believed to be from Auckland, was found by a motorist yesterday morning in bush beside the road, where he would not easily have been seen.

On Sunday, 4-year-old Masterton girl Kahui Matauwhati died after the car she was in crashed on State Highway 4 at Owhango, between Taumarunui and National Park.

- The Dominion Post

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