Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyAugust 8, 2023

How New Zealand drastically reduced its road toll in 50 years

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Males aged 20-24 are much more likely to die in a car crash than any other group in Aotearoa. But in 1972, the overall death rate was even higher than it is for young men today. Emma Vitz takes a look at the data.

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If you’ve ever bought car insurance with a young man on the policy, you’ll know that they’re considered more of a risk. They tend to drive cars that are more dangerous at faster speeds, with a prefrontal cortex that hasn’t fully come online yet. When a man makes it past his 25th birthday without wrapping himself around a tree, insurance companies ease off the premium. Parents breathe a sigh of relief. We made it.

The fact that young men are the most dangerous drivers isn’t news to anyone. But what you may not realise is that 50 years ago, New Zealand as a whole used to have an even higher rate of road deaths than men in the danger zone (aged 20-24) have today.

By standardising the number of deaths, we can compare groups of different sizes and account for changes in population size over time. In 2022, the road death rate for males aged between 20 and 24 was just over 20 per 100,000. This is much higher than the overall death rate of 7.35 per 100,000 that the New Zealand population saw in 2022, but still lower than the death rate observed for the whole country in 1972, when 24.1 people per 100,000 died on the roads per year.

How did we bring about such a dramatic change? Over this time, road safety legislation surrounding the use of seat belts, car seats and alcohol has changed dramatically.

In 1965, seat belts were required to be fitted in the front seats of new vehicles, although wearing them was not compulsory. By 1975, the driver and front seat passengers were required to wear them. Four years later, this was extended to all passengers. Car seats became mandatory for children under five in 1994, and this was extended to those under the age of seven in 2013.

Reducing drink driving also played an important role. In 1969, alcohol restrictions on drivers were introduced for the first time. Blood alcohol limits were initially set at 100mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood, and reduced again in 1978 and 2014 to 80 and finally 50mg. In 2011, a zero alcohol limit was introduced for drivers under the age of 20.

While these pieces of legislation clearly played a role, other factors impacted the death rate too. Cars became safer by including airbags and other features to prevent death in the event of an accident. Roads became safer, with major improvements to state highways being put in place since the 1990s. 

The road toll is one of the few death statistics that gets published every day and reported on every holiday weekend. This is in spite of the fact that the number of people who die on our roads is now significantly lower than those who die of other causes, such as death by suicide. 

If you had never looked at the road toll statistics over time and had only ever read the news about it, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was terrible, and getting worse. But in reality, two things are true – every death on the road is a tragedy, and we have successfully brought down the number of tragedies that happen every year.

Keep going!