Time to replace our failed safety strategy

Since 2010, the NZTA have had 10-year road safety strategy called Safer Journeys. The Safer Journeys website describes it as:

Safer Journeys is the government’s strategy to guide improvements in road safety over the period 2010 to 2020. The strategy’s vision is a safe road system increasingly free of death and serious injury and introduces the Safe System approach to New Zealand.

The Safe System recognises that people make mistakes and are vulnerable in a crash. It reduces the price paid for a mistake so crashes don’t result in loss of life or limb. Mistakes are inevitable – deaths and serious injuries from road crashes are not.

Within the strategy there have been three action plans, the most recent being 2016-2020.

The third Action Plan will renew focus on areas of greatest risk and disproportionate harm, and present opportunities for the use of current and emerging technologies.

In particular, this Action Plan’s focus is to:

  • enable smart and safe choices on the road
  • make motorcycling safer
  • ensure roads and roadsides support safer travel
  • encourage safe vehicles.

The words sound nice but is it working in reality and are we doing enough to keep people safe? The stats suggest we have a long way to go.

In the 12 months to the end of Feb, 321 people lost their lives on roads in New Zealand. Of that 33 were pedestrians and six were people on bikes. While it’s down on 2010 when the Safer Journeys strategy was introduced, 375 people died that year, it is up considerably on early 2014 when we reached the lowest ever point of 249 people over a 12-month period. And this doesn’t even cover the numerous serious injuries that occur. Any other activity that caused as much death and injury as roads do would have been shut down long ago.

 

Currently 6.8 people for every 100,000 in the country will die on our roads and even at its lowest point it was 5.5. To put that in comparison, the road toll in Sweden last year was 263 but with a population of over 9.8 million, that gives them a rate of just 2.7 per 100,000 people. If New Zealand was achieving that same rate, around 200 fewer people would die on our roads every year.

Given the results of how we’ve been performing, we need to start to think about calling Safer Journeys a failed strategy. Sure, over the long term things have improved, but that mostly came from before mid-2011 and likely a hangover from previous work undertaken. Since that time the picture isn’t pretty.

If Safer Journeys is a failed strategy then we need to start thinking about replacing it, and we’ll have to in 2020 anyway. It’s a good thing we won’t have to look too hard to find a suitable replacement either as a better strategy already exists in the form of Vision Zero, an initiative that started in Sweden and has started spreading across the world.

At its core, Vision Zero is summarised as: No loss of life is acceptable. At face value, much of what discussed in Safer Journeys is broadly similar to Vision Zero but where they are different is in the tone of the language used. For example, compare that Vision Zero statement with the vision from Safer Journeys of “A safe road system increasingly free of death and serious injury“. It’s the difference “we must to do better” versus “we hope, maybe if we’re lucky to do better”.

It’s that requirement that we must do better, at all costs that is why Vision Zero is working in so many places. It, along with the key principles of Vision Zero provides the political and policy cover and encourage the transport industry do to better, even if it means slowing traffic down or removing road capacity.

One of the ways we can tell Safer Journeys is not working is the high number of crap designs that continue to be advanced by our transport agencies. Traffic flow and movement continue to be prioritised over safety and we hear many stories where key safety features are stripped out in order to save money or save a few seconds of inconvenience for drivers. One good recent example being the Mt Albert town centre changes where at the last minute, AT proposed to retain lightly used right turn lane at the expense of a safe, protected bike lane next to the train station. They even tried to sneak consultation through on it.

Kent posted a great video on the principles behind Vision Zero back in January.

One of the interesting developments with Vision Zero is that while it started in Sweden and initially spread to other countries, now many of the locations adopting it are individual cities, such as many of the large US cities (a list of them is on Wikipedia). Given the government and the NZTA are unlikely to suddenly come out and adopt it, perhaps Auckland should follow the lead of those US cities and adopt Vision Zero itself. In fact, this year would be the perfect opportunity to do so because the council is required to refresh the Auckland Plan, the 30 year vision for the region, and what better place to embed the idea than that.

So should Auckland adopt Vision Zero?

“The accident is not the major problem”

A few weeks ago, I wrote about some misguided commentary on road safety that implied that “distracted walking” was a serious problem. It isn’t by any reasonable measure, but many of our other transport practices are unsafe.

On average, around 300 people die as a result of road crashes. Around 15 percent of the deaths are pedestrians and cyclists, who would have been perfectly fine if a motor vehicle hadn’t run into them. Another 1500 people suffer serious injuries in road crashes. And while road deaths are on a downward trend, the number of serious injuries has hardly changed over the last decade.

Some of these people chose to take on the risk of death or serious injury when they got behind the wheel. But others had the decision made for them – by someone else’s recklessness or by bad street design. So it’s worth asking: are there things that we could do to reduce these risks?

A few years back, Citylab published an excellent interview with Swedish traffic safety expert Matts-Åke Belin, who helped design Sweden’s “Vision Zero” approach to road safety:

Since approved by the Swedish parliament in October 1997, Vision Zero has permeated the nation’s approach to transportation, dictating that the government manage the nation’s streets and roads with the ultimate goal of preventing fatalities and serious injuries.

It’s a radical vision that has made Sweden an international leader in the area of road safety. When Vision Zero first launched, Sweden recorded seven traffic fatalities per 100,000 people; today, despite a significant increase in traffic volume, that number is fewer than three. To compare, the number of road fatalities in the United States is 11.6 per 100,000.

As of 2014, New Zealand had 6.5 road deaths per 100,000 people. So it’s roughly where Sweden was 20 years ago.

In the interview, Belin made one comment that particularly stuck with me:

In Vision Zero, the accident is not the major problem. The problem is that people get killed or seriously injured. And the reason that people get serious injuries is mainly because people have a certain threshold where we can tolerate external violence, kinetic energy. And we know quite well now how much violence we can tolerate.

One of the major things with Vision Zero now is to put that more explicitly on the table. It’s like if we’re talking about the environment, and you know you have a certain threshold when it comes to poison, or whatever. You can tolerate up to a certain level. So it’s not just to stop the traffic. You can actually allow traffic. But if you have places in your system where you have unprotected road users and protected road users, according to Vision Zero you can’t allow a higher speed than 30 kilometers per hour [18.6 mph].

Because if you have, as we did in Sweden before, 50 kph [31 mph] as the default speed in an urban area — if you get hit by a car at 50 the risk for a fatal accident is more than 80 percent. But it is less than 10 percent when you have 30 kilometers per hour.

Clearly we have seen it is not enough to, for example, change the speed limit. You maybe have to put in speed bumps. You have to think through all the conflict spots that you have in your traffic system. And do things about it.

Speed, in short, is a fundamental determinant of whether people die in crashes or walk away. We can’t eliminate accidents entirely, because humans aren’t perfect (and neither are machines), but we can reduce the consequences of making a mistake.

The role of speed was highlighted by the Cycling Safety Panel convened by the government in the wake of a 2013 coroner’s inquest into cycle fatalities. They published the following graph to illustrate: The risk of death or serious injury for pedestrians hit by cars is four times higher at 50km/hr than at 30km/hr:

Cycle Safety Panel speed and death chart

However, as Belin observes, speed isn’t just a function of posted sign limits – it’s also about the design of roads. Road geometry must encourage people to keep to safe speed limits.

Unfortunately, it’s likely that road design standards encourage speeding. That’s illustrated in this chart from a Ministry of Transport review of speeding-related crashes, which found that the average free-flow speed on urban roads was higher than the posted speed limit. 15% of cars travel more than 5km/hr over the speed limit.

MoT urban road speeds chart

In short, our default urban speed limits are too high for pedestrians and cyclists to be safe in the event that they’re hit by a car… and road designs encourage people to drive even faster.

This has a number of direct and indirect consequences. The direct consequence is that people die, needlessly. The indirect consequence is that many people choose not to walk or cycle at all – a rational response to a dangerous road environment. That in turn leads to health problems and premature deaths down the track as a result of physical inactivity.

So what could be done?

The good news is that safety is a major priority for the NZ Transport Agency. They recognise that speed is a big part of that, but I’m not aware of any concerted effort to reduce urban speed limits, or make it easier for local road controlling authorities to do so.

The bad news is that there isn’t a major public conversation about safe speeds. But it’s starting to come up on the political radar. For example, the Green Party made lowering speed limits near schools a key part of the “safe to school” policy they released in March:

Safety is the number one concern that stops parents from sending their child to school on foot or by bike.

When parents wave goodbye to their child in the morning they should know they’re going to be safe when riding their bike or walking with their friends to school. […]

We will:

  1. Reduce the speed limit outside urban schools to a much safer 30 km/h
  2. Reduce the speed limit outside rural schools to 80 km/h, with the option of a 30km/h limit during drop-off or pick-up times
  3. Allocate $50m a year for four years to build modern, convenient walking and cycling infrastructure around schools: separating kids and other users from road traffic, giving a safe choice for families
  4. Get half of kids walking or cycling to school by 2022: reducing congestion; improving health and learning; saving families time and money

The devil’s always in the details with proposals like this. For example, how far around schools would the 30km/hr zone apply? But if we were looking to trial lower speed limits in urban areas, it would be really sensible to start with the roads around schools. The benefits are likely to be higher, as kids are especially vulnerable when walking by the road.

What do you think we should do about urban speed limits?