Kate MacNamara: Holiday roads are safer than we’re led to think

OPINION:

The police will be out in force this Easter weekend in the name of safety on New Zealand roads and the Ministry of Transport has been cranking up its awareness campaign to promote safer driving ahead of the holiday.

So you could be forgiven for thinking that holiday driving is a risky business. It’s not. At least there’s nothing to suggest it’s any more risky than driving at any other time of the year.

There has been an average of 3.6 road deaths over Easter for the past five years for which there is government data, 2015 through 2019. The Ministry of Transport measures Easter across 4.5 days, from 4pm on Thursday to 6am Tuesday, putting the fatalities well under one a day, and below the average road toll across the rest of the year (Easter produced .78 fatalities per day, compared with .96 fatalities a day across the remainder of the year).

The picture doesn’t change significantly if you add serious injuries, or compare all holiday days to all non-holiday days. And it isn’t much altered if you look at other holidays. Not the Queen’s Birthday, not Labour Day weekend, not even Christmas, when the ministry continues to update its website daily with road death and serious injury figures that help to feed a steady drumbeat of road crash stories in the news. Those, in turn, receive much greater prominence in the media for their tragic timing and because of the holiday-related slow news context. They rarely provide much sensible broader perspective.

The Ministry of Transport was reluctant to concede that road harm over the holidays is not elevated. In first answering questions from the NZ Herald, a spokesman said comparison isn’t possible: “a simple comparison against an average non-holiday period day will hide the large range of contributing factors involved in a single crash. These factors make it difficult to conduct an analysis that would conclusively draw any statistical inference.”

However, when pressed with written questions, the spokesman acknowledged: “while the ministry has not undertaken a detailed analysis to investigate if there is, over time, a statistically significant difference between ‘ordinary’ days and official holiday days, the available data suggests no significant difference exists.”

Neither is it clear that Kiwis drive less over the holidays, which could produce greater risk from driving despite a lower instance of harm. In fact, government agencies don’t appear to know whether Kiwis drive more or less during holiday periods.

A major source of information on vehicle-kilometres travelled are “odometer-data” gleaned from Warrant of Fitness inspections and collected in the Motor Vehicle Register. Government agencies can aggregate this to estimate how much driving is done, across different regions and vehicle types.

The second major source is the Ministry of Transport’s own database, based on road traffic counts, known as Road Assessment and Maintenance Management (RAMM) data.

“Both data sources provide good aggregate data over an extended period, however neither data source is able to establish whether vehicle kilometres travelled were accrued during a holiday or non-holiday period,” the ministry spokesman said.

Holidays, at least by the road numbers are pretty benign; so why the speed traps and the driver-awareness campaigns?

If you go back decades, holiday driving did seem to produce larger crash numbers. Easter driving from 1990 to 1994, for example, resulted in an average 13 road deaths a year, close to three fatalities a day spread across a much smaller total population. And though the overall road toll at the time was also higher, the holiday period clearly stood out grievously.

Police and other agencies can likely claim some success in bringing those numbers down, especially in conjunction with law changes like zero alcohol limits for teenagers and lower limits for adults. It remains the case that drugs and alcohol are a factor in close to half of all fatal crashes, across all times of the year.

Police declined to answer questions about the size of its holiday budget for maintaining road safety outside the lengthy Official Information Act process (in the last budget the force was allocated $400m for its entire Road Safety Programme). But perhaps it’s time to reconsider those allocations that pay for a surge in police visibility and enforcement on the roads over the holidays.

None of this is to say that it isn’t important to reduce road crashes, especially serious ones. Obviously, every one is terrible for families and communities and a cost, through the likes of health care and ACC, to society as a whole. No doubt enforcement of road rules plays a part in minimising crashes, alongside important factors like investing in roads and associated infrastructure and vehicle safety.

But perhaps our finite resources could be better deployed. The data show that serious crashes spike between 3pm and 6pm, every day. A pattern that holds right through the week, even on Sundays. Avoiding fatigue and intoxication is likely just as important for commuting and the school run as it is when hitching up the caravan and driving to Taupo.

So by all means be patient, keep left, and drive to the conditions this weekend, but don’t let it cloud your perspective.

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