Editorial: NZ's avoidable road tragedies

Last year no-one was killed on the roads over Queen's Birthday weekend. The year before that, seven people died. This year, there were three fatal accidents in which a total of five people died.

Two of this year's accidents involved drivers from overseas, so attention has naturally focused on the rules that allow tourists and other visitors to drive here without having to get a specifically New Zealand driver's licence. Driving in New Zealand has always been a hazardous business and we all need to get better at it. Despite improvements in recent years, we still compare pretty poorly with similar countries overseas. Foreign drivers are not the real problem on New Zealand roads. All drivers are.

Foreigners are permitted to drive in New Zealand provided they have either an international licence or a valid licence issued by another recognised country. The international convention that permits this also allows New Zealanders to use their New Zealand licence when they are overseas. As New Zealand travellers will know, driving in a different country can be slightly disorienting at first. But nowadays that sense of strangeness is less than it once was because many of the most important road signs are standardised. And if anything, the strangeness tends to make a driver more rather than less careful on the road.

New Zealand, like most countries, also already goes to considerable lengths to ensure that foreign drivers are aware of the rules of the road here and of any factors that may be new to them. Air New Zealand has produced an inflight video it shows to visitors before they arrive and rental-car companies, who have an obvious interest in safe driving, promote road safety to newcomers when they rent a car. There is always more that could be done to educate foreign drivers that could help improve safety.

But as the police point out, foreign drivers are in any event responsible for a relatively small proportion of road fatalities in New Zealand. By far the greatest risks on the road remain domestic drivers who are drink- driving, travelling too fast and failing to wear seatbelts.

The worst Queen's Birthday weekend was 41 years ago, in 1973, when 24 people died. That was also the year in which the toll for the whole year hit a peak of 843. Safer cars and better roads have lowered the toll since that appalling high point. But beyond the death toll, serious injury remains high - the number badly hurt on the roads each year is 10 times higher than the number killed - and the social cost to the nation is an astronomical $4 billion, enough to pay for the public health service for nearly a third of the year.

By just about any measure, New Zealand driving is worse than in any comparable developed country. When, 40 years ago, the carnage on the roads was much higher it was taken as the price to be paid for road travel. The losses suffered now, while tragic for individuals and families, are looked upon in the same way. They should not be. Just as 40 years ago a very large proportion of them were avoidable, so they are now. We should all be doing more to avoid them.

The Press