To err human, not idiotic

In his column last week, Gordon Burnside expressed concern that the vast majority of motorists are being penalised because we have reduced the speed limit on State Highway 3 between Waitara and Bell Block.

Burnside suggests that those who do have crashes are "idiots", having "out- of-character moments", and don't reflect the norm.

Burnside does acknowledge in his article that crashes are caused by people who make mistakes, and we agree. However, it's important to note that making a mistake does not make us an "idiot". It just makes us human.

So, it's not necessarily the idiots we are targeting. It's the humans.

In addition, on State Highway 3 between Bell Block and Waitara, over the last five years there have been three fatal crashes, 12 serious crashes and 56 minor injury crashes. This is a tragic human cost, and it's worth making the effort - and sacrificing 40 seconds of travel time - to prevent more deaths and injuries from happening.

True, we can agree that some voluntary behaviours, such as drink- driving, are idiotic. But on the whole, human beings are fallible, and even the smartest, most conscientious drivers will make mistakes from time to time. Sometimes those mistakes will result in death or serious injury, a fate that no one deserves.

Law-abiding drivers may find themselves involved in crashes even when they haven't made a mistake, so they, too, will benefit from safety measures that reduce the likelihood and severity of these crashes. If reducing a speed limit, or banning cellphone use by drivers, or taking an unroadworthy car off the road prevents another vehicle from harming you and your family, then you haven't been penalised at all. You've been protected.

And it's these kinds of protections, together with safer roads and safer vehicles, that have helped to reduce the road toll from more than 800 deaths four decades ago to 254 last year.

Calling such lifesaving interventions "penalties" and shifting the blame to "idiots" ignores the intricate nature of cause and effect.

Think of a young guy with passengers who takes a corner too wide, puts a wheel into the roadside gravel, loses control and hits a pole. Something to do with the youngster caused the crash - probably inexperience, perhaps fatigue or distraction from his passengers; maybe he was showing off..

But let's put these to one side and look at all the other factors. If this group of young people were travelling at 110kmh, then they're far more likely to be killed by the impact than if they were driving at 80kmh. Similarly, if they were driving in a five-star safety-rated vehicle, then they would be more likely to escape with their lives (and remember, five-star vehicles often don't come at a five-star price anymore). If the loose gravel wasn't there, the driver may have never lost control. If the pole wasn't there, or was made of frangible material that crumples when struck, then you remove that severe collision from the equation. And so on.

You could argue till the cows come home that the crash was caused by idiocy. But that's seldom the whole story. What causes crashes and what causes deaths and injuries are two different things. Oversimplifying the inter-related flurry of circumstances that result in road trauma into a sweeping declaration of "stupidity" does exactly nothing to prevent the next horrific crash.

We need to accept that there is far more at play than driver behaviour if we're serious about saving lives on the roads. If we focus only on people, we won't make the network safer because the inconvenient truth is that people will always make mistakes.

And there lies the essence of Safer Journeys, the road safety strategy that is behind everything we're doing to create a safe road system. There is no silver bullet. Instead New Zealand needs much safer vehicles, safer speeds, safer roads and roadsides and safer drivers, riders, pedestrians and passengers. We need a forgiving road network that protects people from mistakes, regardless of who makes them.

All of the changes being made, such as median barriers, rumble strips, more speed cameras, changed speed limits, lowered blood alcohol limits and harder licence tests for young people, are designed to work together to save lives.

And we don't distinguish between idiots and innocent people. In our view, nobody deserves to die or be seriously injured on the roads. Of course we'd love people to be perfect on the roads all of the time, but that's not reality. Even our best sportspeople who are paid big money to perform for short periods sometimes make mistakes.

New Zealand's road toll is coming down because our roads and roadsides are getting safer, vehicles are getting safer, most people's travel speeds are coming down and the vast majority of people are adopting safer driving habits to ensure that when mistakes inevitably happen, the consequences are less likely to be tragic.

And the simple truth is that none of these elements works in isolation. To keep people alive we need a broad, smart approach to reducing death and injury on our roads. We'd be idiots to do otherwise.

Jenny Chetwynd is regional director of the NZ Transport Agency

Taranaki Daily News