5 Jan 2019

Road safety overhaul targets speed limits and phone use

6:44 pm on 5 January 2019

Lower speed limits and higher penalties for using a cellphone while driving are being considered as part of a major overhaul of road safety this year.

Some drivers on Dominion Road took to the bus lanes, despite police warnings

Some drivers on Dominion Road took to the bus lanes, despite police warnings Photo: RNZ / Anusha Bradley

The Ministry of Transport's road safety manager, Brent Johnston, who is heading the cross-agency project, said it will look at road design, car safety and driver behaviour.

He said 380 people lost their lives in 2018.

"That's a devastating figure and completely unacceptable. Clearly we need to do something different."

New Zealand's road death rate is 7.9 per 100,000 population, compared with 5 in Australia and 2.6 in Sweden.

Part of the problem is the roads themselves, Mr Johnston said.

"We live in a long, hilly country. Many of our roads are narrow and lack the safety features we see in other countries.

"We are upgrading the infrastructure, but meanwhile, it's important that drivers are making good choices every time they get behind the wheel."

The speed limits in several places "don't match the design and function of our roads", he said.

"Speed limits may need to come down until we have the necessary infrastructure. That's part of what we'll be consulting on this year."

Driver distraction was another major contributor to fatal and serious crashes.

"Cell phones, kids, loud radios, eating while driving - these all take away from the critical task of being in charge of a motor vehicle."

The strategy would also consider fines and penalties for driving while distracted.

"We could also look at technologies for reducing distractions, like internet blockers."

The draft strategy will be open for consultation in April.

Nine people died in crashes during the official holiday road toll period, which finished on Thursday 3 January at 6am.

That figure does not include the nine people who died in the four days before the official holiday period began, nor the three who have died since.

Mr Johnston said drivers could reduce their risk now by wearing seatbelts, turning off cellphones and not speeding or driving while drunk or tired.

Road deaths peaked at 795 deaths in 1987 to a low of 253 deaths in 2013.

Since then however, the number of road deaths has been tracking up again, with some criticism aimed at cuts to police numbers.

There were also thousands of serious injuries - in 2016 there were 12,456.

The ministry's annual Social Cost of Road Crashes and Injuries report estimates that the total social cost of fatal and injury crashes rose from $3.87 billion in 2015 to $4.17 billion in 2016.

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