Editorial: Driver safety focus needed to reduce road toll

By Peter Jackson

Northland Age editor Peter Jackson.
Northland Age editor Peter Jackson.

The irony is that this country's fixation with safety, blindly accepted by many of us when it comes to protecting our children especially, and complying with rules designed to deter adults from behaviour that is accompanied by the remotest risk of harm, does not extend to the way many people drive.

Last year's horrific road toll — 40 in Northland, 25 in the Far North, six times what it should have been in terms of population — might have been an aberration, but the fact is that it could have been much higher.

The writer's personal observation was that over the last few weeks of 2017 especially, more people drove at obscene speeds than ever, far beyond the point where many of those drivers had any control whatsoever over their vehicles.

Minutes before emergency services responded to a bizarre single-vehicle crash in the Pak'nSave Kaitaia car park, where a 70-year-old Auckland man crashed his 4WD into a trolley bay with enough force to damage it significantly and propel his vehicle out of the car park, a police officer had followed — pursued isn't quite the right word — a Subaru Legacy into Kaitaia at speeds reaching 150km/h.

"People who drive with absolutely no regard for others might well be doing us a favour when they kill or maim themselves, but so often they take innocent lives instead, or as well."

The Subaru driver navigated the Pak'nSave roundabout, just, then made it around the Grigg's Corner intersection with Pukepoto Rd, almost clipping a motorcycle in the process, before disappearing at a phenomenal rate of knots. The officer had seen the car undertaking other vehicles before it reached the town boundary.

North Rd from the roundabout to Grigg's Corner offered all sorts of potential for disaster, including two pedestrian crossings.

Read more: One more fatal crash - this time at Waiharara

The car park crash was bad enough. Supermarket car parks demand great care and attention at any time, let alone the busy season. They are populated by shoppers and children, yet, whatever might come out in court in the fullness of time, this man, who admitted that he had been drinking, drove at sufficient speed to buckle a pipe trolley bay. If he had hit human flesh instead, his victim would not have had a chance.

Last week the writer watched as a car sped along Allen Bell Drive in Kaitaia towards Matthews Ave. Its speed as it passed Korimako Lane and crossed the Allen Bell bridge was such that the weight lifted off the wheels. It would have been travelling at well over 100km/h when the driver began braking before arriving at the Matthews Ave intersection.
Pedestrians, mobility scooters and dogs are very common in Allen Bell Drive.

The idiot would have had no chance of avoiding a person or animal.

A few days earlier a car, possibly the same one, approached the same intersection at horrendous speed. The driver, perhaps being unable to stop before hitting two vehicles waiting to turn into and cross Matthews Ave respectively, approached the intersection on the wrong side of the island. Having to wait for oncoming traffic, he reversed with sufficient power to spin the back wheels, entered his correct lane, then shot across the intersection — and turned into Repco, on the corner across the road.

We worry about our kids learning to drive, and many of them fail the practical test for ridiculous reasons. What we should be worrying about is their chances of surviving long enough to gain the experience needed to regard every driver they encounter as a potential killer.

A sensible, responsible kid driving on any road at significantly less than the speed limit, which many of them do, will have no chance of getting out of the way of one of these morons.

People who drive with absolutely no regard for others might well be doing us a favour when they kill or maim themselves, but so often they take innocent lives instead, or as well. And the law, which threatens all manner of dire repercussions for employers who do not provide a safe workplace and teachers who allow children to climb trees, seems all but impotent.

Drivers who display the most egregious behaviour have not infrequently been disqualified; they carry on driving regardless.

Where many of these drivers come from we don't know, until they kill themselves or someone else. Perhaps those who treat speed limits in the streets and roads in and around Kaitaia with disdain are out of towners, but it is Far Northerners who are most commonly dying on Far North roads, despite radio advertising over the festive season that suggested the contrary.

A lack of local knowledge rarely seems to be a factor. And a supermarket car park is a supermarket car park, wherever it is. So is a speed limit.

One thing the law might do to deter this sort of behaviour is to charge those who kill with manslaughter. Many fatal crashes involving an innocent victim will meet the criteria, and charging people with dangerous driving or driving with excess alcohol causing death just doesn't cut it any more.

These people should go to jail for a very long time. Even if that doesn't persuade others to take greater care, it will take some of the worst drivers out of circulation. And we shouldn't have to wait until someone like the Subaru Legacy driver kills someone before we are granted a much greater degree of protection than the law currently provides.

Contrast the response to the mayhem we have seen on the roads over the last year with the reaction to the Catch a Million promotion at limited overs cricket matches. Not altogether surprisingly, those who have bought the official shirt, and stand to collect $50,000 if they can catch the ball with one hand, have been flinging themselves, literally, in all directions with gusto.

This season has been especially spectacular, and arguably dangerous for other spectators. One child has reportedly been injured, and one would-be catcher landed on a very small baby.

One radio talkback caller suggested that the rules be tweaked to state that anyone who does not catch the ball in a responsible manner will not win the money. Brilliant. Give that man a job in Wellington. More rationally, New Zealand cricket now demands that those chasing the money be restricted to specific parts of the ground.

That makes sense. But spectators, particularly those accompanied by children, could have avoided these people. Not hard to do given that they are all wearing the required shirt. And an international cricket match is no place for a babe in arms.

In fact the greatest danger at any cricket match is probably faced by those who populate the embankments and take no notice of what's going on out in the middle.

One of these days, inevitably, someone is going to collect a cricket ball right between the eyes. That could be fatal. The chance of a 100kg fan falling on top of their child should be the least of any inattentive parent's worries. One pessimist has predicted that after that happens cricket grounds will have to be surrounded by nets.

The roads are much more dangerous places though. We have long been told that statistically the most dangerous part of any journey involving air travel is driving to and from the airport. We can believe that. It is probably becoming more dangerous every day, and it will take a great deal more than the Government's promised rumble strips to make it safer.

- Northland Age

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