Guest Post: Road deaths are part of life

A guest post by :

At the start of the summer holiday season we are already hearing the familiar lament about the road toll (or “road carnage” as more hysterical members of the constabulary sometimes call it). As I write this, there have been 368 people killed on the roads this year, compared with 311 in the whole of last year. Sadly we can pretty much guarantee that half a dozen more people will die in what is left of 2017.

What can we do about this loss of life on the roads? I say there is very little more we can do; arguably we have already accepted unreasonable limits on our freedoms in pursuit of the holy grail of “getting the road toll down”. Down to what? Does some fool really believe we can eliminate road deaths entirely? Or even nearly so? If so they are as deluded as those  seeking  to entirely eliminate child abuse.

First some context.  Back in 1987, 795  people died on our roads, not much short of three times last year’s toll. Since 1987 there has been a steady downward trend in yearly road deaths. It is important to remember that during that 30 year period the number of cars has more than doubled – apparently there are now three times as many cars on our roads than in 1977. Without the  massive changes since  then, we could expect an annual road toll of near on 2000 rather than 300 odd.

What has changed since 1987? The biggest changes must be the engineering of cars and the compulsory wearing of seatbelts. I can still remember my astonishment when visiting State Insurance’s crash yard in the late 90’s. There was a Japanese car – I forget the make – crushed so severely that the headlights were about a foot in front of the firewall. I asked how many had died in the crash. The answer – “None, and the doors still open”. I tried them, and sure enough, they did. I asked where the engine was, and the guy said “down on the road where it’s supposed to go”

Until that time I, like all crusty old Kiwi males, thought “energy absorbing crush zones” were just a bunch of hooey, and I would stand a better chance in my old Jag than in  some “Jappie”. Wrong.

There have been other major engineering changes: collapsible steering columns; side impact beams, and of course front and later side airbags. In other words, the car rolling off the line in 2017 is immeasurably safer than a vehicle that looked roughly the same 30 years ago.

Attitudes to wearing seatbelts have completely changed in 40 years. I can still remember it being seriously argued that you were much safer not wearing one so you could be “thrown clear” in a crash. Forty years later my old mate Hughie religiously wears his seatbelt even in his digger, and lectures me about doing the same.

Perhaps the biggest attitudinal change is that to drinking and driving. Like all males of my generation, I have shameful memories of driving so drunk I had to close one eye to stop seeing double. Men would openly boast to each other about  consuming some enormous amount of booze, but still driving home. It is something of a wonder that so many of us have reached the ages we have.

But has the obsession with booze – like that with speed – gone too far?  Penalties for being “intoxicated” now begin  at 250 mcg of alcohol to a litre of breath. I have experimented with that level of “intoxication” – I use quotation marks deliberately – and felt not just quite capable of driving, but  completely  unaffected. I have had clients utterly bewildered at getting a ticket while having that level of alcohol aboard.

We have long recognized the difference in behavior between 20 year olds on or about the legal limit and men and women 20 or thirty years older. In short, the intoxicated 20 year old thinks he’s even more bullet proof than normal, and imagines he is a Formula One champion. The 50 year old by contrast drives strictly on the speed limit, and treats every amber light as a red. Ironically it is this very caution that often gives him away to the ever vigilant police.

This arguable over reaction to drink driving has come at a cost: the traditional country pub is dying, with 10% of them closing a year. In less than ten years they will almost all be gone.  I live in a rural area where taxis and dial-a-driver are simply not options. Because two pints in an hour will put you over the magic 250, the locals either take the risk, or more often simply stay home. So our local, like so many others, is slowly dying.

There may be some evidence that lowering the breath alcohol level to 250 mcg makes a significant difference; if there is, I would be most interested in it. Speaking as a middle aged driver who has in the past been a big drinker, I would be very surprised if there is anything like the positive benefit of making the blood/alcohol limit for drivers under 20 zero, and  the reduction for over 20’s to  250 .

Speed is the other obsession of those seeking the Holy Grail. Last Christmas period the police were bewildered when their much trumpeted zero tolerance policy – as opposed to the standard 4kmh usually allowed – not only had no effect on crashes but  the number of deaths  was UP on previous years. They shouldn’t have been surprised.

I simply do not believe that someone doing 120 or 130 in good conditions on the open road is any more of a risk than someone religiously sticking to 100. Everyone knows that it is quite simply impossible to overtake the old dear doing 85 or 90 without going 120 or so for a short period. To do otherwise would lead to an overtaking manoevre lasting a minute, and using up a kilometer of road – something that is hugely dangerous in itself.

There is grudging recognition  by way of  the new 110 kmh roads that a modern car  can be driven safely at more than 100. Inevitably that will mean we drive them at 120,  conditions permitting.

So what am I saying? Simply this. We have a large number of cars on roads which are still for the most part two lane. There will inevitably be fools – one of them died yesterday – who cross the centre line at high speed. Regardless of engineering advances, the human body simply cannot survive rapid deceleration from a speed of over 200 kmh to zero in a fraction of a second. Princes Diana died of a torn aorta in just such a crash.

While we should always look for improvements in we need to be realistic – and consider the costs and benefits of, for example, driving country pubs out of business. We accept the miniscule number of aviation deaths a year as one of the costs of air travel. Perhaps it is time to reach the same acceptance regarding road deaths.

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