Low road toll no reason to relax

Last updated 13:00 01/01/2014

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OPINION: First, some numbers: 655; 677; 713; 843; 676; 628; 609; 702; 654; 554. No prizes for guessing what they have in common. A statistician or high-functioning maths whizz might find a pattern, but the figures, seemingly random, are united by the tragedy and pain they represent.

They are the consecutive annual road tolls throughout the 1970s - a period when our highways must have resembled a modern-day wild wild west.

In 1973, this national shame peaked, with 843 road deaths. The year-end toll was still consistently in the six and seven hundreds through the 80s and early 90s.

But the turn of the millennium has brought significant change. It has not topped 500 since 2000, and 2013 ended at midnight with something real to celebrate: the lowest annual road toll since 1950 when the total was 232.

This change for the better is no accident. Roads are better engineered and much safer than 40 years ago. Those so common delays for roadworks, whether on local or state highways, have not been for nothing.

Cars are safer. Even if their bodywork seems much lighter and easier to crease with the most minor knock, our odds of surviving a significant crash are much higher as the national fleet has got progressively newer and more technologically advanced.

A recent accident near Rai Valley, when five people walked off virtually unscathed after a flying container from a truck completely flattened two vehicles, is a case in point.

On the other hand, modern cars with very small motors are still capable of speeds much higher than the speed limit - and people with limited driving experience seem often to acquire high-performance vehicles and delight in pushing them hard.

Police targeting of potentially lethal traits - speed, drink-driving, refusal to wear seatbelts, "boy racer" antics, for example - have undoubtedly played their part. So, too, has public awareness.

Those in the road safety business will take some satisfaction from 2013's low toll, unofficially set at 254. They note big drops in motorcyclist and passenger deaths, along with young drivers and drunks, among the total.

While a toll that is around a third of the totals being reached decades ago is pleasing, any preventable death brings huge grief and anguish to those close to the victims.

We all are guilty of poor driving at times: inattention going into a corner, taking a risk in passing a truck or camper van, failing to notice road signs, drifting over the centre line. Usually we get away with it, even if such incidents - in themselves most often too minor to take any notice of - can mean the difference between life and death.

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However, we take to our roads with a huge amount of faith in the abilities, focus - and sobriety - of others we meet on the road. A 10cm-wide strip of white or yellow paint on a highway is little protection.

As we head into 2014 and perhaps on unfamiliar roads, we might use the low toll of last year to prod ourselves toward greater vigilance. Better roads, safer cars and fewer drunks can only go so far as we drive to do even better in 2014.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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