New Zealand’s road toll problem

To anyone who has driven down a section of State Highway One in Waikato there are two depressing things that stand out. One is the large number of white crosses, each symbolizing a life taken in a road accident. Some sites have recorded multiple fatal crashes, each one devastating a family and upending lives in ways only the victims and their families will understand.

The causes are often speed, alcohol or some horrible combination of both. A failure to drive according to the conditions and fatigue may also be factors. Officers who have the grisly job of scraping bits of people off the roads and piecing together what happened will also have an equally horrible job of having to tell someone that their loved one is not coming home, ever.

So, why are we – after years of steady progress – going backwards again? This Christmas period, despite having a few days still to run is deadlier than the whole equivalent period in 2015-16. What can we do about it?

The adverts on television regarding the road toll are as blunt as the topic matter is hard. New Zealand has a road toll that is disproportionate for a nation of four million people. There is much emphasis on making sure people do not drive drunk, but not so much about people driving under the influence of narcotics. Making roads safer will only go so far, when there should be stronger emphasis on making people drive to the condition of the road on the day.

One idea could be to overhaul the demerit point system to include residual points that are permanent and the only way to avoid them is not earn them in the first place. The idea behind them would be to assign – I am not by the way trying to make a death simply something with a quantitative value, because there is none that can be realistically assigned – certain types of offences a certain number of demerit points, of which only a portion ever dissolve. An example could look like this:

A person is allowed 1,000 demerit points before they lose their driver license. A fatal accident where murder was the intention might be worth 1,000 demerit points; and manslaughter is 700 points of which 200 dissolve. For the sake of this example we will say a person committed murder using a vehicle as a weapon, thus 1,000 points are initially applied. The demerit points are applied at the end of the sentence handed down, and 200 points will eventually dissolve. However 800 remain and another event involving death – murder or not – will result in the permanent loss of license, thus right to be driving, with any breach being one for which the offender can be arrested.

Another suggestion, which would go some distance towards addressing driver behaviour, could be to institute a “driver insurance”, that anyone holding a New Zealand license is required to obtain. Either that or tipping the balance in the law so that the the onus of responsibility is on the driver in the first instance and individual passengers after that.

There will be about 90-95% compliance, but just as with all laws there will be a select few who think that the law does not apply to them. They will have no remorse or understanding of the consequences or any empathy with the victims. For them jail can be the only option.

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