Can we be safer on our roads?

The challenge to design a safe transport system that reduces death and injury, is suitable for a variety of modes of transport and encompasses future modes of transport is almost overwhelming in scale.

It’s a challenge that our experts at WSP Opus, who are at the forefront of transport planning and traffic engineering, spend a lot of time on. Coming off the back of another horrific year on New Zealand’s roads, we asked our experts what they considered the most important factors in drivers could take into account.

It’s in the stars

Fergus Tate, Technical Director Transport, is widely acknowledged to be a leading expert in road safety in New Zealand, having spent over seven years with the NZ Transport.

He oversaw the introduction of the New Zealand Road Assessment Programme KiwiRAP and the development of road Infrastructure Risk Rating (IRR).

Fergus wishes more people understood that roads have different levels of risk, depending on their features, which is why Star Ratings on roads are so important.

Star Ratings are derived from a Road Protection Score (RPS) with the risk score determined via evaluation of each of the road's features. For example, the risk of being involved in a crash on a road with no sealed shoulders is greater than on a road with wide sealed shoulders of 1.2-metres or more.
During holiday periods many people travel long distances on New Zealand’s rural road networks, which carries a greater degree of risk than the motorways many city-dwellers are accustomed to.

“While the rural road network carries just over half of the vehicle kilometres of travel nationwide, 74% of road deaths occur on the rural road network. The standard of our rural roads is variable typically ranging from 2 stars to 4 stars (  It is worth noting that the risk of an injury crash is twice as high on a 3-Star road as it is on a 4-Star road and twice as high on a 2-Star road as it is on a 3-Star road.”

Fergus recommends drivers spend time prior to commencing a journey familiarising themselves with the Star Rating of the roads they’ll be travelling.

“If you’re taking rural roads then you’ll want to reset your expectations about doing 100 km/h and adjust travel time accordingly. Driving on 2 and 3-Star roads will require a greater level of concentration than being on a motorway, so factor in more frequent stops to ensure you can remain focused.”

Always be aware of risk

Robert Swears has dedicated his career to road safety engineering; he agrees with Fergus that rural roads are not all the same and extra care is needed when driving on some of them.

He also worked for 10 years as a volunteer ambulance officer and has seen first-hand the aftermath of crashes.

“On most of our rural roads, aside from the skill of the driver, the only thing preventing a vehicle that’s travelling towards you in the opposite lane at 100 km/h from hitting your vehicle is a painted line about 100 mm wide. At 100 km/h it can take less than one second for an opposing vehicle to cross the painted line and be completely in your lane. You need to be a skilled and alert driver and watch out for the mistakes other people will make so that you can respond to emergency situations.”

Most people haven’t been involved in a serious motor vehicle crash and Robert says that leads us to think it will never happen.
“Crashes are usually preceded by someone making a mistake; sometimes it's you who makes a mistake, sometimes it's another road user. When those mistakes happen, the results can literally change or end someone's life."

Speed is a major factor in the severity of crashes, and something Robert wishes more people would focus on.

"We've all heard the phrase ‘speed kills’. Using a bit of maths and physics, we can compare the energy involved in crashes at different speeds with a similar crash at 100 km/h.  For example, crashing at 110 km/h involves 121% of the energy, while crashing at 90 km/h involves 81%.  So, if your vehicle is involved in a crash, the speed at which it is travelling prior to the crash has a significant effect on the crash severity.  The slower you go, the softer you’ll hit something if you crash."

Even seemingly obvious things – such as ensuring objects in the car are secured can make a difference.

“On longer trips we’ll often have extra loads in our cars; things like luggage, books, games – sometimes even pets. If a crash occurs, anything in your car that is not secured will keep moving. While something small like a mobile phone might not seem much of a risk, consider how much it would hurt to be hit by a mobile phone thrown at you (or at someone you care about) at 100 km/h.”    

Robert considers that some crashes are unavoidable, but notes that crash severity is usually influenced by the decisions people make prior to the crash.