A road safety plan to drastically reduce road deaths has hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending attached, Dileepa Fonseka reports

South of Paekakariki in Kapiti lies a 3.5km stretch of road that saw 15 fatal crashes between 1995 and 2005

But in 2015 when a $15m median barrier was installed, there were no further head-on collisions.

Road safety improvements like these lie at the heart of a “Road to Zero” road safety strategy announced today that aims to cut road deaths by 40 percent over 10 years. 

“We’re really just at the beginning of our journey and we know this is going to be at least a 10-year journey.”

Associate Minister of Transport Julie Anne Genter released the plan on Thursday which will see an average of $200m extra per year spent on road safety in the next decade – including on roads owned by local government authorities.

“We’re really just at the beginning of our journey and we know this is going to be at least a 10-year journey,” Genter told reporters in Wellington.

Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter released the plan to dramatically improve safety on New Zealand’s road. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

“When you look at countries like Sweden and Norway they had similar road death rates to New Zealand 10 years ago and now they have less than a third of our rate per head of population.”

The extra money will fund police enforcement, safety promotion and infrastructure upgrades like the insertion of median barriers along troubled stretches of road.

“The roads were engineered and designed in a different time.”

Also included in the plan are measures to introduce roadside drug testing by 2021, phase-in speed limits near schools, and a “no surprises” speed camera policy coupled with a promise to triple their number across the country. 

Automobile Association spokesman Simon Douglas said the association was “very pleased” at the announcement and Road Transport Forum CEO Nick Leggett said “lives would be saved and injuries avoided” with the moves. 

Roads for a different era

90 percent of road accidents happen on 10 percent of New Zealand’s roading network and Leggett said those problem stretches of road were often located near areas that had experienced unplanned-for population growth. 

Their “substandard” design simply could not cope with the increased traffic flows seen on those roads now.

“The roads were engineered and designed in a different time.”

Tauranga to Katikati was one such road, with vast population growth in Tauranga the road had become “one of the most dangerous in the country”.

In some cases widening and straightening roads, or upgrading slippery surfaces might be needed to bring them up to “21st century” safety standards. 

In other cases it might be cheaper to build a new road, Leggett said. 

Douglas said brand new, four-lane, “well-divided” highways had “enviably good” safety records but the country couldn’t build new roads everywhere and had to prioritise its National Land Transport Fund spending.

He also noted seemingly simple safety improvements like median barriers might not be as straightforward to push through as people might think.

Road-controlling authorities needed time to identify the right place on the road to put such barriers, factor in existing accessways, and then ensure there is enough space on the shoulder of the road too.

After all that was done Douglas said people with houses on driveways snaking off those roads slated to get median barriers could also object to them being installed.

“NZTA often comes up against some local and community resistance when they go to put in barriers like these because people perceive that it’s going to impact them and cause their journey to take longer.”

Douglas said the AA has been trying to do work to convince people that although it may lead to increased commute times for some – by reducing their ability to turn right out of their driveway for example – median barriers would make road travel “vastly safer” for those people too.

Infrastructure NZ CEO Paul Blair said safety improvements on existing roads could also long time to fully implement because they were essentially “brownfield” construction on an active road.

“It’s an existing road – there are cars, there are pedestrians, there are people on it already and you obviously want to keep traffic moving while installing this kit, that’s the difficulty.”

There was a need to secure the safety of the people working on those roads while they were putting new safety measures in place. 

“It’s a bit ironic that we’ve got safety concerns about installing safety stuff.”

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