Two years ago, the previous Government announced it was spending $25 million to make the country’s key tourist routes safer. David Williams follows the money.

Only $4 million has so far been spent making the South Island’s key tourist routes safer, two years after the Government announced a high-profile $25 million project.

That’s raised eyebrows from road safety group Brake, while questions are also being asked about the project’s effectiveness and why some money has been funneled into building car parks, a walkway, and viewing platform.

In December 2015, after a string of horrific crashes involving overseas drivers and a rise of citizen vigilantes taking keys off the drivers of rental cars, the Government announced it would spend $25 million on the Visiting Drivers Project “to help improve the safety for visiting drivers”.

Of that, $15 million was to be spent on road safety engineering works on state highways in Otago, Southland, and the West Coast. Another $8.75 million was earmarked for work on local roads, if the money’s matched by councils, with up to $1 million for an education and social media campaign.

Not much has been spent so far.

NZ Transport Agency figures show $2.75 million has so far been spent on state highway work, $750,000 on an education and social media campaign, and $500,000 on local roads.

Caroline Perry, the director of road safety group Brake, is surprised so little has been spent to date. “With the number of deaths on our roads increasing it’s vital the Government is investing in infrastructure safety measures that are proven to reduce deaths and serious injuries, such as safety barriers.”

Up to yesterday, the 2017 road toll was 342 people – the highest since 2010, when 375 people died on New Zealand roads. Last year’s toll was 327 people, 29 of which, or 8.9 percent, were from crashes involving overseas drivers.

NZ Transport Agency’s South Island director of regional relationships, Jim Harland, says it was hoped more work would be done on the Visiting Drivers Project before this summer but there were delays in getting appropriate designs finished and contractors organised. Also, the weather wasn’t helpful last year. “We had a very wet summer so we couldn’t get some of the work finished.”

By the end of this coming summer, Harland says it’s hoped that a total of $10 million work would have been done on state highways.

The bulk of the Visiting Drivers Project money has gone on safety works like rumble strips, “keep left” arrows, more no-passing lines, barriers, widening road shoulders, and new signs pointing to rest areas. However, the official list of works, released to Newsroom, shows some of the money has been used to create a car park, walkway, and new lookout area along the Milford Rd.

Harland defends the use of that money. He says tourist drivers, including New Zealanders, often stop in inappropriate places to take photographs and the projects were proactive to make roads safer. “You try to set it up so people make the right decisions.”

But Perry is concerned money’s going into what seems like tourism initiatives, like building viewing platforms.

“We support the Visiting Drivers Project’s aim of reducing risk on our roads, but funding from this project should be focused on activities that have the most potential gains in terms of road safety, saving lives and reducing serious injury, such as median barriers and improved signage.”

Southland Mayor Gary Tong believes the Milford Rd projects fitted the project’s criteria and he supports measures to stop tourists wandering across the road or parking dangerously. However, he isn’t aware of money being spent on building a walkway. “I don’t know where that one is, to tell you the truth.”

(There’s a chance the transport agency’s $8.75 million for “matched funding” with local councils will be underspent. There are just three projects on the agency’s books right now – a $1.19 million upgrade for the West Coast’s Hokitika Gorge Rd/Whitcombe Valley Rd, $1 million for sealing the Lower Hollyford road into Lake Marian, in the Fiordland National Park, and $300,000-$400,000 for a new car park area at Bennetts Bluff, near Queenstown.)

Tong says he doesn’t consider roads to be the biggest safety issue. “It’s always the driver behind the wheel that’s the issue, whether it’s speed, overtaking or just looking at the scenery, really.”

He’s at a loss as to what more can be done – “it’s a tough one”.

“We’ve just got to monitor what we’re doing now to see if it is having an effect. I hope that it does. But you’re never going to be able to work out what the person is feeling at the time, whether they’re tired, whether they’re in a hurry, whether they’re inattentive.”

Harland says a survey of rental car users shows the majority have seen some of the campaign’s safety messages.

(Safety messages are pushed in many places – when people book through travel agents, an application on Air New Zealand’s in-flight video system and the AA has a driving simulator on its website.)

The proportion of overseas licence-holders in crashes has been reasonably stable at 6-6.5 percent despite tourism growth, Harland says, adding: “That would suggest we’re making progress.”

The latest statistics, smoothed over five years, show 6.2 percent of crashes involve people with overseas licences. But the South Island is over-represented. Nationally, it has 27 percent of all crashes but 43 percent of crashes involving overseas drivers happen there.

Since 2005, the number of crashes involving drivers from the United Kingdom (238 in the five years to 2016) has halved, while the number involving Chinese drivers (341 between 2012 and 2016) is 700 per cent up.

In the 12 months to November this year, there were 3.69 million international visitor arrivals in New Zealand – a rise of 44 percent in five years. Chinese tourists, meanwhile, are now New Zealand’s second-largest international tourism market, with 411,000 arriving in the 12 months to November.

Harland says overseas drivers crash for similar reasons as New Zealanders. They fail to see the other vehicle, they make a mistake which results in a loss of control around a corner or on a straight or they get caught in shingle and over-correct.

“We know that human beings all make mistakes,” Harland says. “The point about the safe system approach is if that if you do make a mistake then if there’s a barrier we can put up then you don’t go over the side of the cliff and get killed. You might be injured, you might have your vehicle damaged, but that’s the point.”

But as Brake’s Perry points out, it’s hard to see how building walkways and viewing platforms is a life-saver.

Disclosure: In May, this writer was involved in a highway crash involving a foreign driver, who admitted careless driving causing injury.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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