Educating tourists won't make roads safer

DANGEROUS DRIVING: Highly robust research suggests road safety education simply doesn't work.

DANGEROUS DRIVING: Highly robust research suggests road safety education simply doesn't work.


Road safety campaigner Clive Matthew-Wilson, author of The Dog and Lemon Guide, takes issue with one of our regular columnists about what should be done about foreign tourists driving on New Zealand roads.

Mike Yardley's column Frenzy over foreign drivers misses point was inaccurate. In it, he accused me of being "swept up in the pack frenzy urging officials to sledgehammer visitors by forcing them to sit a [driving] test".

Yardley then earnestly reminded us that New Zealand is a signatory to the International Drivers' Licence Convention, and that any attempt to test foreign drivers would prompt a series of retaliations against our own drivers overseas.

What is astonishing about Yardley's piece is that he does not appear to have read my actual words on this subject.

My position is that anyone who has recently arrived in the country (including Kiwis) should have to pass a simple, interactive test before being allowed to rent a car.

Because such as test would apply to everyone, it would not breach our treaty obligations. This brief test would simply evaluate whether a person was aware and awake enough to be behind the wheel of a rental car at that time and place.

My proposed test would be a computerised version of a simple but highly effective mechanical test developed by London Transport in the 1930s and still in use for evaluating British pilots at the turn of the 21st century.

Yardley endorsed my suggestion about restricting the hire of rental vehicles to recently arrived travellers. Tourists can currently rent a vehicle at the airport after an 18-hour flight. This is crazy. It is now universally accepted that driving while tired is as dangerous as driving while drunk.

However, Yardley was way off the mark with his suggestion that the problem is really not that great. While the national figure is quite low (about 2.9 per cent), in certain locations, such as Southland, the percentage is around 25 per cent; an alarming figure, given the relatively small amount of traffic using those roads.

Yardley's confidence in education as the solution to the problem also suffers from several serious issues.

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The first is that virtually all available research suggests that the worst drivers believe they are the best drivers. So, assuming that these bad drivers realise the value of the education being offered, they don't believe it applies to them.

Second, the educational approach assumes a similar cultural view, whereby road safety is the result of a series of planned and logical steps. However, some cultures, including many from Asia and those from the Indian sub-continent, believe that life or death in any situation is a result of chance, fate or karma (the divine law of cause and effect). This group is unlikely to believe, or grasp, the concepts behind the education that is being offered.

The police have seized a number of vehicles from members of this group, including an Indian national who overtook at speed on blind corners and was unable to grasp what the yellow line down the middle of the road was for.

An additional problem is that highly robust research suggests road safety education simply doesn't work. As with anti-drug education for teenagers, road safety education was based around the assumption that high-risk behaviour could be avoided if the persons concerned were informed of the consequences of such behaviour. Unfortunately, it is now universally accepted that anti-drug education for teenagers doesn't work.

Similarly, the American Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, one of the most respected road safety establishments in the world, collated the results of dozens of other studies over the past 30 years. Their conclusion: "Research indicates that education has no effect, or only a very limited effect, on habits like staying within speed limits, heeding stop signs, and using safety belts."

Institute chief scientist Allan Williams stated bluntly: "Until you check out the facts, who can argue against the benefits of education or training? But when good scientific evaluations are undertaken, most of the driver improvement programmes based on education or persuasion alone are found not to work."

So what does work? Safer roads, for a start. NZTA research shows that rumble strips are highly effective at alerting a driver to a potentially dangerous situation, such as drifting out of lane.

Horizontal rumble strips in the road leading up to major intersections would also be an effective and affordable way of alerting drivers to the impending danger. These rumble strips would work well in conjunction with multilingual and icon-based road signage at intersections, to warn drivers which side of the road they should be on, and which way they should look.

People are welcome to disagree with my views on road safety. However, it's more useful if people actually read what I say before they comment about it publicly. Where road safety is concerned, ignorance frequently ends in tears.

Clive Matthew-Wilson has been a road safety campaigner for 18 years. Matthew-Wilson's position paper, Driven to distraction: a submission on reducing tourist accidents, is available through his website,

 - The Press


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