A school, an office, an entire town: a perspective of New Zealand’s rising road fatalities.
The total amount of road-related deaths in 2018 amounts to more deaths than the Pike River (29), Kaikōura Earthquakes (2), Cave Creek (14), Mt Erebus Air Crash (237) and Wahine disaster (51) combined. In September this year, the Ministry of Transport (MoT) will lead new road safety strategy, Vision Zero, where acceptance of even one road injury is not an option.
Last year 382 people died on New Zealand’s roads making on road accidents the biggest contributor towards non-health related deaths in 2018. MoT spokesman Brent Johnston calculated that, on average, one person is injured every hour of every day.
The social cost of motor vehicle crashes have been estimated to be:
Somehow, we take it for granted that deaths and serious injuries are a legitimate part of our transport system. What we do know, is that unrelated tragedies trigger emotional and behavioural responses. Phobia of a plane crash can prevent us from travelling, yet when statistically speaking, a person would have to take a flight every day for 55,000 years before encountering a fatal accident. (Curiosity, 2017). In 2017, there were 37 million flights and 13 deaths. Yet approximately, 1.35 million people die each year as a result of road traffic crashes (World Health Organisation, 2018).
Eric Wilson, a professor at Wake Forest University and author of Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can't Look Away , says the scale of our fears stems from both morbid and empathetic impulses.
"Fixating on disaster reportage can bring out the worst in us: getting a rush from the suffering of others, and the best: a feeling of empathy for those suffering as well as a deeper understanding of the meanings of suffering and death.”
"I also think that we probably get a feeling of relief when watching disaster coverage, relief that this terrible thing didn't happen to us."
A survey conducted in the US by Chapman University analysed the scale of ‘fear’. What they found, was the 43 percent of the participants surveyed revealed that their hierarchy of fears stemmed from lack of control. For instance, there is less control travelling via airplane than driving a car.
It’s true, large catastrophes, with multiple fatalities spark a larger reaction than individual mounting mortalities. Yet, if we compare 2018’s death toll to a community similar in size, the figure becomes much more paralyzing and a lot less tolerable.
For instance, 70% of New Zealand schools have a total pupil roll of 380 or less. There are 28 towns in New Zealand that have a lower population count than 382. Plus, the standard office size in New Zealand is below 300 employees. Would we accept these deaths?
Jared Thomas, Technical Principal of Behavioural Science has a background in human factors, applied social psychology and environmental psychology, with a particular interest in improving the safety and usability of transport environments and public spaces.
Jared believes that in terms of attentiveness, we are very good at filtering information to attend to what is most important when we are focused, but several bias and distractions limit this ability.
"Biases include optimism (it won’t happen to me) and self-enhancement bias (or “othering” where most people believe they are better than the average driver), which can make us think we are safer than we are. In-vehicle footage of thousands of drivers shows us that prior to crashes about 50% of motorists are involved in a secondary task. Some tasks we attempt to reduce (e.g. no cell phone use), but other tasks, such as taking our eyes off the road to manage children or reach for something to eat or drink still exist. Overall, we need a mind-shift of greater respect around risk when using our roads, but we also need to do better at creating environments that support our people when they are tired or distracted.” Says Jared.
Setting higher standards for New Zealand’s road safety
There are many contributors towards New Zealand’s recently released fatality rate. But instead of blaming drivers– we should investigate transport as a whole and not just a system designed for vehicles.
Enter, Vision Zero.
Vision Zero (and similar system referenced as Safe System in Australia and New Zealand) was adopted in Sweden over 20 years ago. The initiative since, has received international acclaim. The government-led policy takes a controversial approach to road safety: Human error is inevitable, but traffic fatalities and serious injuries are not.
Unlike traditional approaches that have focused on perfecting human behaviour to improve safety, Vision Zero emphasises shared responsibility between road users and system designers. Yes, road users should always follow traffic laws and regulations, but system designers must take the necessary further steps to make our roads safe for all users.
Since Vision Zero’s adoption, the initiative has received considerable international interest and has spread to countries around the globe. Vision Zero distinguishes itself from traditional road safety approaches by focusing solely on fatalities and serious injuries, drilling down on those issues through acknowledgment of human error and the sharing of road system responsibility between users, designers and decision-makers.
In the course of pulling together data from police reports, trauma centres, first responders and much more, Vision Zero has emerged as a new perspective on road safety that is intended to address the epidemiological problem that road transportation represents.