Last year 320 people were killed on New Zealand’s roads. Alex Braae spoke to the people on the front line of road safety about the plan to turn that around.
When the goal is to bring the road toll down to zero deaths a year, there’s no one simple solution. It involves better technology, but it also requires the drivers of New Zealand getting much smarter about how they handle themselves on the roads.
The police and other government agencies have a long-term strategy known as Vision Zero.
“It sets out our vision for a New Zealand where no one is killed or seriously injured in road crashes,” says Inspector Peter McKennie. While the strategy is in place until 2030, actually making it happen is a long way away.
Over 2020, 320 people were killed on the roads. That was down on previous years, and in part reflected the long stretch of the year when people weren’t really driving anywhere. It also means that on a per-capita basis, the road toll is coming down. But the fact that it stubbornly remains in the hundreds reflects entrenched problems.
When the question of the decline in per-capita stats is put to Greg Murphy, he says it obscures a much more important point.
“The only reason for that is cars. Manufacturers are spending billions of dollars on building safer cars.”
The former racing driver, well known to the public for his love of moving very fast in a car, has become a road safety advocate since retiring from the track. More specifically, he has become an advocate for improving the skills and changing the culture of New Zealand’s drivers, as the best way of preventing loss of life on the roads.
“If you look at the crash statistics, and also the injury statistics, I can guarantee you that the amount of serious injuries that would have resulted in death 20 years ago would be substantial. People’s lives are being saved because of airbags and crash structures.”
Are we becoming worse as a nation of drivers?
“Definitely worse,” Murphy grimly concludes. “We’re putting more and more people out there with the same basic lack of preparedness.”
“People don’t even know that they’re on the brink of having a car crash a lot of the time, because the car is saving them from that. But they don’t even know it.”
The licensing system has tightened up in more recent generations, after once upon a time prospective learner drivers weren’t really tested at all. From 16, you can apply for a learner licence, and six months later drivers can go for a restricted, which involves a practical test. A full licence becomes available after 18 more months, or 12 if the learner has done a defensive driving course.
Murphy said this demonstrated a “really upside down way of learning and gaining experience”.
“What they expect is that we’ll do some real basic stuff to give you a licence, and then once you’re free on the roads, we expect you to spend that time as a learning experience, and we expect you to do courses, and investigate and research how to be a good driver. Nobody does that, obviously,” said Murphy.
“People don’t do that unless they’ve got a really good reason. And unfortunately, the road toll and the amount of injuries and destruction on the roads is not a good enough reason for people. Once they get their licence, that’s it.”
For the police, their focus is on eliminating bad behaviours among drivers, including drunk driving and speeding. “Speed is the single biggest determinant in whether someone walks away from a serious road crash or is carried away. Less speed means less harm. Take it easy when you’re on the road. Slow down and arrive alive,” said Inspector McKennie.
Increasingly, they’re also concerned about issues like fatigue and distractions. Sometimes the advice given by police for drivers is incredibly simple – eat well and ensure you remain hydrated, for example – and yet it can make a big difference.
But for those people who drive for a living, it’s a question of not just what they do to keep other road users safe, but what other road users do around them. That’s particularly true for anyone who drives a heavy vehicle.
People sometimes drive recklessly, and the consequences of that can be much higher when driving around trucks. “It can be hard to judge the speed and length of a truck so wait for a passing lane to pass safely. The risk is too high to drive impatiently,” says Inspector McKennie.
There’s an immense responsibility that comes with driving a truck. The weight of the vehicle makes it a lethal hazard for other road users in a crash, and because of the disastrous consequences of mistakes, the job requires serious skill and powers of concentration.
The technology surrounding truck drivers has improved markedly, to the point that for some drivers the experience looks more akin to flying a plane than driving a car. The Spinoff was taken out on the road by Michael Cossey from contracting company Mini-Tankers, for a morning of diesel deliveries to construction sites around Massey in Auckland.
At first glance, the contraptions surrounding the driver appear to be dizzying. There’s a pair of screens to the lower left of the driver’s eye line. Below them is a bank of easy-access switches for various lights. Sensors keep track of whether the speed limit is being crossed, or whether the truck is drifting out of its lane.
Sitting behind the steering wheel is an additional speedometer, and a camera that provides a crucial line of defence against driver fatigue, a dangerous threat on the road. The stats bear this out – a 2004 Massey University study found that fatigue was a factor in one in six truck crashes. In 2019, across all accidents fatigue was a contributing factor in 17 fatal crashes, 85 serious injury crashes and 491 minor injury crashes
Monitored from the US, the camera keeps tabs on drivers – specifically their eyes. Michael held a thumb up to the camera to show the offshore observer he was doing a demonstration, and then explained how it worked. “If you look away, or close your eyes…” before there was a sharp whistling alert. “So that helps with fatigue. It’s got an audible alarm, plus there’s a seat shaker.”
Cossey’s day starts early, driving up from Pukekohe. Generally he’s on the road when it’s still dark outside, and he works six days weeks. That means taking simple steps like being careful to get to bed on time, and switching off during mandated breaks. He never uses his phone on the road, instead pushing an autoresponder on calls that come in. Z gives him a coffee each morning to help start the engine.
But even so, driving a truck is demanding, and mistakes happen. “If I was driving down the motorway, and I closed my eyes to go to sleep, America will see that, and will ring us straight away,” says Cossey.
“If I don’t answer it, then they’ll ring someone who can get hold of the driver straight away who can say hey, what’s going on? Stop, pull over, have a sleep or whatever.”
The camera monitor workers don’t have the power to disable the vehicle remotely – that too would be a danger to other road users. Z’s general manager of commercial, Nic Williams, who is responsible for the safety and wellbeing of the Mini-Tankers team, agrees.
“It’s important to us not to fall into the trap of thinking that if you address one thing in isolation, like fatigue, that you’ve ticked safety off,” he says.
“Our entire approach is about how to ensure safety systems work as a whole – for our Z drivers, and for all drivers. We’ve got our own zero-harm approach and we fully support Vision Zero being a reality for everyone on the road in New Zealand.”
The camera isn’t the only device that keeps track of Cossey while he’s on the road. He also wears a pendant with a device attached to it, worn around the neck on a lanyard. It has to stay hanging upright, or else an alarm will be triggered. This sort of thing is especially useful if someone is working alone, which Cossey generally is – if he has an accident, or something knocks him over on a site, then it won’t be long before someone gets alerted to it. Fortunately, nobody Cossey knows has had to use it yet.
Don’t all the screens around his eye line get distracting? “No, not at all,” Cossey says. “None of that really worries you, that’s sort of down below you, where you’re looking below your mirrors. It’s just more and more technology.”
Some of that technology took a lot of work to get to a roadworthy state. Cossey says many of the tablets used by truckers in the forestry industry got destroyed by the shaking they were subjected to on the rugged roads in and out of logging sites.
A lot of the trucking system itself is monitored by a New Zealand-made platform called E-Road, which has a display screen in front of the driver. For Cossey’s truck in particular, it also helps manage his fuel tank and the hose he uses to fill up on sites. Importantly, it also displays the speed limit for whatever area he’s in – and if a truck driver goes over the limit, usually they have to personally wear the fine.
When it all comes together, the end result is safer roads for everyone. Cossey explains the metaphor that works best while demonstrating a mechanism on his fuel pump that connects to the handbrake to prevent drivers accidentally rolling off with the hose still plugged in. It’s an example of how for road safety, everything needs to come together.
“They call it the Swiss cheese effect, when all the holes in the cheese line up, it can all fall apart. So that’s why we’ve got all these safety features.”
This content was created in paid partnership with Z Energy. Learn more about our partnerships here.
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