Editorial: Out there on the roads

Four deaths. Cause for celebration?

Actually yes, a little bit.

Southland's road toll last year was the lowest since records began in 1980, continuing a pleasing trajectory of decline.

We have no argument with the gravely-intoned message that generally accompanies a low toll; that even one death is too many is no less valid for being often-heard.

Nor with the reminder that however improved the wider perspective might be, those four people are no less dead, their families no less bereft.

But the fact remains we are doing better at keeping ourselves, and others, alive on our roads and that is no small thing; enviable even in a nationwide context of 254 deaths, the lowest in the past 60 years.

Police are entitled to take credit for the impact of their targeting high-risk drivers, periods and locations. Cars are safer too. The messages from nationwide advertising campaigns against drinking-driving, speeding and inattention are seeping into public consciousness.

Engineers and contractors are constantly striving to make the roading network less unforgiving of minor errors.

The result, in the south anyway, has been progress and improvement. Not only in the motorised areas, either. Southland has gone five years without a cyclist death.

It adds up to a legitimate encouragement to maintain and improve our efforts. We get blase at our peril. A vivid sense of what we're risking every time we set off on a long journey or short trip helps keep us alive.

Unhappily, even then, we may not be the masters of our own destiny. The failings of other drivers can still wipe out the most careful motorist.

And the danger is especially acute in the case of tourist drivers unfamiliar not only with the character of our roads, but also the basics of driving on the left.

The year ended with the death of a Chinese woman in a Northern Southland. Her husband and another relative were also seriously injured.

The crash prompted a reasonable call from Chinese Vice-Consul General Li Xin that more be done to prevent such accidents, given that Chinese tourists, now the second-largest source of visitors, are increasingly renting cars in preference to organised bus tours and are arriving with very little knowledge about our roads and driving rules.

Mr Li's point was broadly underlined by the court appearance yesterday of an Indian tourist who police say nearly caused a seven-car pile-up.

Policing, and the vigilance of the wider community, can do only so much when people hit our roads sorely unprepared in ways that imperil their own lives and ours.

Mr Li says the consulate will do all it can to remind Chinese tourists to drive with extreme care. More than a few New Zealanders would say that what's needed is a testing regime before tourists can rent cars.

It's the sort of solution that is conceptually appealing but riddled with potential difficulties of unwieldiness, unreliability and potential illegality (international drivers' licences do count for something).

Nevertheless, for all our sakes, a strong case exists for looking into our own systems to see whether we can, for all our sakes, be showing a more intelligent interest in assessing the capacities of tourist drivers before we permit them to hop into a rental and drive it off.

The Southland Times