Why Is Road Toll Low?


How could the annual road toll be below 300 for the first time in 59 years?
Are people driving less which has impacts on the justification for the motorway construction spend?

The Ministry of Transport insists not.

The Ministry of Transport”s road toll report for the second quarter of 2011  shows a record low in the number of road deaths  for the first six months of the year.

The January to June toll of 139 is the lowest since records began – the previous low being 192 in 2006 – and the 69 deaths in the April to June quarter was similarly a record low.

The reductions in fatalities has also been accompanied by drops in crash-related hospital admissions and ACC claims.

In the last 50 years, the lowest road toll was 366 in 2008 followed by 385 in 2009 and 375 last year.

But are we really driving safer?

Is it the crackdown by police on tolerance of going over the speed limit and motorway signs warning there are supposedly “more police” out on the roads during long weekends.

Aust and NZ highways carried warning signs over holiday periods

Transport Minister Steven Joyce points to recent improvements such as barrier separations on sections of State highway, developments in vehicle safety, changes in road policing, and legislative changes like the ban on handheld phone use while driving and measures to crack down on illegal street racing and drugged driving.



There have been other factors:

  • Petrol prices are higher and it has been noticeable during long weekends that more people have been staying in Auckland, not going away
  • We missed out on a long weekend this year for Anzac and Waitangi Days
  • The NZ dollar rate has made a trip to Australia instead of domestic travel more affordable
  • An AA statement also talks of “significant factors like safety improvements to the State Highway network.”
  • The AA adds the report highlights details like the reduction in fatalities has mainly been on the open road rather than in urban areas and also predominately during the day.

Discussing petrol prices and their impact, the report says petrol pump prices in the first quarter of 2011 reached the same level as they did in 2008, though diesel was less expensive than it was then. Petrol pump prices in the second quarter of 2011 reached a new high.
But “two economic indicators show that unemployment has increased and vehicle registrations have dropped, which may have been a response to the economic situation and changes in the finance industry.”

So are people driving less?

The report says:

“Average petrol prices for the January–March 2011 quarter reached the record levels of 2008 (average regular petrol price just over $2/litre  and continued to an all time high over the April‐June 2011 quarter.

However the effect on travel volumes has been limited. State highway traffic in the April‐June quarter of 2011 was down 1.7 % compared to April‐June quarter of 2010. The January‐March quarter of 2011 was down 0.6% on the January‐March quarter of 2010.
How non‐State highway travel has been affected is not yet known, although non‐State highway travel follows the same trend as State highway travel .

Estimates of all traffic are made using WoF/CoF (warrant of fitness and certificate of fitness) odometer readings, and the January–March 2011 WoF/CoF figures will not be available until October. The WoF/CoF analysis showed a travel drop in 2008 during the fuel price spike. The drop was similar to that on the State highways.
Given the level of fuel prices in 2011, it is possible that a decline in discretionary travel may have contributed to theimprovement in weekend deaths during 2011. The sample size of the New Zealand Household Travel Survey does
not allow identification of a change in discretionary travel for a six month period.
There was a drop in the road toll, hospital admissions and ACC claims around the time of the 2008 fuel price spike,even though overall travel volumes did not decline substantially. The same pattern has been seen again in 2011.”

The graph below shows that the trend in State highway traffic is similar to the trend in all traffic (local road plus State highways).

The graph below show growth from April‐June 2010 to April–June 2011. Heavy travel was up 0.7% and all State highway travelwas down 1.7% on the same period a year earlier.

The report notes truck travel was down markedly during 2008 and 2009, but has been recovering in recent quarters. Truck travel has increased at a greater rate than light vehicle travel since 2001.

Light vehicle travel dropped slightly in response to the 2006 fuel price spike, and dropped more during the 2008 spike.

All travel has been close to static for the last 5 years (39.4 to 40.2 billion km of travel). This NZ Transport Agency travel data is limited to the State highways (which account for almost 50%of traffic).

“It shows a similar pattern — overall travel has been almost static for the last 5 years. Heavy vehicle State highway travel was growing, but dropped in response to the downturn in 2008, and is still short of the 2007 level.

Other findings in the report include:

  • Open road deaths have continued to drop and are down 40 percent since the last quarter of 2010.
  • Motorcycle deaths, particularly those for riders aged 25 and over, have increased markedly in recent years.
  • Young drivers continue to be over-represented in the road toll.

Mr Joyce says the impact of further actions like increasing the driving age from 15 to 16 (commencing 1 August), zero alcohol limits for young drivers and repeat drink drivers, improving motorcycle licensing and work on improving the safety of our roads will appear over time.

It would be excellent if people were driving better. Or less.

But it may be too much of a stretch to jump to that conclusion yet.






  1. Jon Reeves says:

    Interesting read. However, is New Zealand’s road toll really low?

    Switzerland, population 8.2 million people, with highway speeds of 130 kmph, winding mountain roads, skinny roads, not to mention 6 months of the year in snow and ice had just 329 deaths last year ( new record low also).

    New Zealand, on a pro-rata basis should have only around 160 deaths per year.

    Allowing larger mega trucks, and of course the near daily logging truck accidents surely cannot help NZ’s road toll.

    Petrol prices are recognised as the major contributor to lower road tolls in Switzerland, and I doubt NZ is any different.

  2. Matt says:

    Jon, no, NZ’s road toll is quite high on a per capita basis. Switzerland is also land-locked and has contiguous borders with countries that have large populations, which contributes even more traffic to their roads.

    Our road safety record is pretty crappy. We’re definitely in the bottom half of the OECD, and I have a suspicion it’s the bottom third. If we break 300 this year, it’ll be entirely down to financial factors because all the engineering and everything else has been underway for a long time and had SFA impact.

  3. George D says:

    I’m agnostic, but I think it’s likely a combination of factors.

    One thing that pushes NZ higher than Switzerland is our low safety standards for vehicles- in large part due to the protestations of the motor industry, which would rather sell more than have safer vehicles on the road. As the pre-1996 Japanese imports all disappear in the next few years things will improve again. A huge number of accidents that occur now would have been fatal in previous years, and a large number that occur now could be prevented if higher standards were imposed.

    Of course, Australia is talking about making things like ABS and stability control mandatory on all new cars. Preventing accidents is much better than saving people once they’re in them.

    I mentioned to Joshua Arbury the other day that the large price of road accidents (death and injury, but also cost of writeoffs, repairs, and road-safety) isn’t properly priced into public transport models. Take 30 million trips off the road and you’ll prevent a large number of accidents.

  4. Matt says:

    George, a decrease of something like 25% doesn’t just happen overnight because of vehicle engineering, or road engineering, or any other external factors. It’s statistically impossible. The drop is too huge to be attributable to anything less than a massive change in kilometres driven.

  5. Patrick R says:

    And, of course, congestion. Congestion saves lives, people are forced to drive slowly and give way to each other…. NZ has long had such a high crash rate in part because of empty roads allowing crazy driving….

    Very hard to die in a car in London, you can kill a cyclist or a pedestrian but very hard to get to anything like a life threatening speed for the motorist…..

  6. Nic says:

    I am wondering if there has been a massive change in driving behaviour, and not just a reduction in kilometres driven. Putting your foot to the floor when prices are high is painful. Have people simply been driving in a more economical manner, and avoiding excessive speed, acceleration and passing manoeuvres?

    The Police have steadily tightened up tolerances for speed cameras under the guise of a zero tolerance approach to public safety. The first weekends where this policy was applied were in 2009, from recollection. Said reduction in tolerance from 10km/h to 5km/h could just as easily be a response to falling revenue from the speed camera program.

  7. George D says:

    Matt, “massive drop”? I’m aware of a slight decrease in absolute distance in the last two years, enough to contribute a fair amount of this. But I think anyone is foolish to weight too much of it on any one factor.

    Another factor that is contributing is the aging of the driver population, caused in part by particularly historically low levels of registration among young New Zealanders. This is related to an increase in public transport use, but it’s also related to an aging population.

    I think we’ll have a clearer idea on this as time goes on.

  8. Kurt says:

    Recession hit economy meaning less money to get about in a car.
    High fuel prices.
    Crap weather.
    Safer cars as our fleet ever so slowly gets more modern.
    Councils or govt addressing some of the carnage area’s of our highways.
    Less criminals failing to stop for police.

    This could all change however with cheaper fuel and or if we ever get out of the slump the economy is in.

  9. Gary Young says:

    Is there any evidence suggesting that an increasingly aging population also tends to drive more carefully or at least with a closer eye on expenses?

    I work with a number of young apprentices in my trade and I notice that most of them favour high performance vehicles which they customarily drive as fast as they can get away with.

    In talking with them I find they show little apparent interest in the cost of fuel even on their relatively low pay rates.

    It doesn’t appear to me that the increasing expense of driving is affecting or will be allowed to affect the high paced driving style of some young drivers.

  10. Anthony says:

    To be honest I don’t think we will see petrol go down below 1.90 ever again…..

  11. Chris says:

    Are we driving more safely or are our cars being built with more safety features to reduce injury?
    It would have been interesting to see insurance company accident stats graphed there too.

  12. Martin says:

    Its a combination of factors:

    Increased fuel costs reducing the numbers driving / kms travelled / speed being driven at.

    Some of the more vicious parts of the NZ road network have been rectified in recent years

    Better educated drivers:

    As we all know NZ is a bit of a joke when it comes to learning to drive, those learning pre late 90s being espcially bad drivers.

    Many of the oldest (and potentially worst taught) drivers are giving up/have been removed from driving. Younger drivers are better taught plus can’t afford to be stupid with cars like most kiwis used to be.

  13. Jim G says:

    The main body of the article seems to be preoccupied with pushing the argument that lower kms driven and high prices are the fundamental factors. Very poor journalism and an indication of the lack of thought that goes into our reporting on multitudes of subjects.

    As pointed out by several comments above vital issues and basic facts have been totally brushed aside in the article.

    1. The average year of manufacture of the vehicles on our roads continues to rise as the years roll on, bringing with it vastly safer vehicles. The insurance council can verify that the number of accident claims has NOT dropped 25%. What has changes is the number of non injury accidents has dropped due to cars being safer.

    2. When a serious crash does occur the medical response and the advances in treatment means that people that otherwise would have died even a few years ago are now still with us!!! This continues to improve year on year and contributes significantly to the toll reduction yet is not cited showing very little appreciation of all the factors.

    3. Aging population and particualy the baby boom bubble means that the average age has climbed on our roads. It will be interesting to see the comments in 10 years time when these “older” drivers are targeted as a high risk factor driving up figures, rather than presently holding them down, certainly the breast beating self praise seen by various enforcement agencies never mention the up side of this factor at present but sure as hell will the down side in 10 years

    4. Congestion as commented earlier, it damn hard to get killed in a gridlock, however the roading systems notorious black spots have and continue to be focused on. The auckland to Hamilton link is a prime example of vast improvements made as oft quoted, how much is a life worth, roading improvements by a series of governments must be applauded.

    5. Advertising and awareness, it helps, even if only in brief spurts, bringing in reduced speed tolerance limits for peak periods and advertising like there is no tomorrow does work, even if just for the long weekend. Human nature being what it is you have to pity the policy makers who have to figure out new ways to attract our attention in a busy world.



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