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Speech

New Zealand Local Authority Traffic Institute

Issue date: 
Monday, 10 August 1998
Speaker: 
The Rt Hon Sir Michael Hardie Boys, GNZM, GCMG, QSO

Mayor Blumsky, Mr Foster, Councillors, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.

Thank you for your welcome, and for the invitation to share in the opening of this important conference. It is important because it is your 50th, and that's a milestone for which congratulations are much in order. But it is even more important because of your Conference theme, Community involvement in traffic management and road safety. Those words spell out a crucial message: that road traffic and safety on the roads are community issues. They involve everyone, not just the regulatory and enforcement authorities. For we all use the roads and we all depend on them as the means of getting from one place to another with minimum delay and in relative safety. So ensuring the free flow of traffic concerns us all.

And how vulnerable we all are to the impatience or the recklessness or the thoughtlessness of others, and how many of those others there are. The standard of driving in this country is not the worst in the world by any means, but it is certainly far from the best. Our roads can be hazardous places. As someone quite justifiably said, if all the cars in the country were placed end to end, some idiot would be sure to pull out and try to pass them. There are huge tasks, and costs, ahead of us in road and traffic flow improvement, and in driver education. These tasks call for the fullest co-operation between central and local government and local communities. And so it's most heartening to know that this Conference brings together such a range of concerned people and agencies and groups. Your contribution is bound to be, as it always has been, a most valuable one.

It is quite a coincidence that the 50th Conference of the Institute is taking place exactly 100 years after the arrival of the first actual traffic in this country, if that is not too inflated a term for the importation of this country's first two motor vehicles.

It's worth recalling that event, because it seems to have prefigured things that have remained consistent to this present day. A Mr William McLean was the owner of those first vehicles: while he was in London for Queen Victoria's Jubilee Celebrations, he ordered two vehicles from Benz - which clearly means that two-car families are nothing new. The two Benzs arrived here in Wellington in February 1898.

In that same year, one of them featured in another historic New Zealand event. It seems that Mr McLean was so proud of his new status that he invited Wellington's Mayor of the time, the Honourable TW Hislop, to accompany him for a spin about the town. Unfortunately, as Mr McLean was blazing down Kent Terrace towards the Basin Reserve, perhaps even exceeding the speed limit of the time - 12 miles per hour - he lost control and crashed into the fence at the corner. So, New Zealand's first motor car was involved in New Zealand's first recorded motor vehicle accident. The Mayor, it seems, was banged about a bit: his nose was said to have bled profusely, and supposedly he was sufficiently upset to have nearly come to blows with his errant driver. I suppose the moral of this story must be that, from the beginning, representatives of local authorities could be in no doubt that traffic could have a severe impact.

Even so, Mr Hislop cannot have been entirely discomfited: afterwards, he, like McLean, became an enthusiastic car owner. It's somewhat reminiscent of Toad, in Wind in the Willows, sitting amongst the wreckage of his caravan, in the ditch, after the first car that he had ever seen had put him there, murmuring "Glorious, stirring sight! The real way to travel! The only way to travel! Villages skipped, towns and cities jumped - always somebody else's horizon!"

But one might be justified in having at least some doubts about the automobile: it is possible to have too much of any good thing. Clearly, the argument can be made that we are simply beginning to accumulate too many vehicles. A simple census, not to mention the state of our cities' streets during rush hour, surely suggests this. By the time TRAFINZ was founded a half century ago, the number of private cars had climbed from those two originals to just under 220,000. Currently, we own more than 1.6 million cars. Granted, there is more and better roading to put them on, but these improvements, tremendous though they have been, have been greatly outweighed by the fall in the ratio of people to cars: from eight and a half people per car in 1948, to only two and a quarter now. Although if one looks at the occupancy of cars travelling to and from work each day, one might be justified in thinking the ratio is down to one per car. And so it's easy to understand local authority spending of more than a quarter of a billion dollars per year on roading. On top of that, there is the amount spent by central government, and, let's not forget, the greatest outlay of all, by the operators of all these vehicles themselves - the billions and billions New Zealanders spend every year on buying vehicles, on servicing them, keeping them fuelled and, when necessary, getting them fixed. We hardly need the current New Zealand Official Yearbook to tell us that: "Capital investment in New Zealand's roading and transport system exceeds that in all other forms of transport."

One can no doubt argue about the precise dollar value of this investment, but whatever may be the number that precedes all the zeroes, the public interest the investment represents and the public good it furnishes, is clearly immense.

So the role of the New Zealand Local Authority Traffic Institute in protecting that public interest, and in enhancing the public good of a soundly built and operated roading and transport system, is of matching importance.

I have already mentioned the necessity for the three way partnership between central and local government and local community. The first of your Conference themes, traffic management, might seem primarily a matter for the experts, but even so, the best and the most acceptable results will surely be obtained co-operatively, with engineering experts and road users alike having significant contributions to the decisions that are being taken. I suspect we all find it more convenient to decide first and then consult afterwards, but that doesn't necessarily produce the best decisions, and it certainly doesn't produce that harmony on which any kind of progress must depend.

The necessity for a partnership approach to road safety is even more obvious. Often, road safety issues come down to the answers to essentially 'local' questions; matters such as the placement of school pedestrian crossings, say, or the upgrading of particular streets into thoroughfares, or whether speed bumps - "sleeping policemen" - should be installed in certain areas, and so on. And as I understand it, co-operative decision-making about matters such as these has become the norm in New Zealand. I am sure that TRAFINZ and all of its members have, over the years, been highly influential in achieving this outcome.

As your President, (Councillor Andy Foster,) wrote in the Conference brochure, "the human and economic costs [of road accidents] are colossal." It is extremely encouraging that the number of fatal accidents is decreasing. But even so, 500 people are likely to be killed on the roads this year, and thousands more will be injured, many maimed for life. The financial resources that must be allocated to the care of these people or to their dependants are vast. But it was not just the economic costs that the President was referring to. Parents continue to be robbed of their children, and children of their parents, husbands and wives of their spouses, and no amount of money can compensate them. And what of the jammed casualty departments of our hospitals, the beds occupied by accident victims, forcing others to wait longer and longer for their own illnesses to be dealt with. There is a huge human cost here. It is beyond measure, and sometimes I wonder whether it is for that very reason that we don't always treat road safety as the topmost priority it surely is.

The traditional response has been to boost enforcement efforts and to make sure that antisocial behaviour on our roads does not escape appropriate penalty. But are we looking hard enough at how to improve road behaviour generally? Should we be lifting our efforts to encourage better behaviour, rather than concentrating on efforts on discouraging the bad.

This is not to say that new enforcement initiatives are not important. For instance, the TRAFINZ push to deploy red light cameras seems, to this layman at least, entirely reasonable. It wasn't long ago that it was fairly unusual for any driver to proceed through an intersection even on an orange light. But now, if you or I were to stand at any busy city intersection, we would see many instances of people racing to get through on the orange, and others quite deliberately flouting the signals altogether and running against what is clearly the red. So any measure that will discourage drivers from disregarding such a basic safety rule is surely to be supported.

Yet I doubt whether stepped up enforcement efforts alone, will make substantial improvements in New Zealand's road safety record. I'm not at all sure that many offenders think of the consequences of being caught. I suspect that it's mainly the law-abiding ones who do. With the others, hitting them hard when they do wrong may certainly have the desired effect, but it's an effect that can wear off, unless somehow the attitude behind the offending has been changed. I am certain that it's attitude that is at the heart of the problem. If I am right, then what we have to do is bring about changes in attitudes, in attitudes that are often fundamental and ingrained.

Of course, changing attitudes, and changing driving behaviour, encouraging good driving habits, is always going to be much more difficult than policing and penalising the unmistakably bad actors. Efforts to change attitudes and behaviour depend very heavily on education and re-education, and in the last three years a great deal of effort has gone into that. The combined Police/LTSA road safety campaign based on emotionally powerful advertising, especially on television, seems to have had quite significant results. I had a circular letter the other day - "Dear Michael" it began in the modern matey style - which gave some impressive figures, summed up by the fact that in 1996 and 1997 we had the lowest road toll for 35 years. There is of course some debate about the relationship between the advertising campaign and the lower road toll. Perhaps more research is needed here. I'm not in a position to comment: but I have a suggestion.

Now, this advertising focuses on bad driving. We are given negative role models. I would like to suggest supplementing these with some positive role models. They say that in the event of fire in a theatre, or an earthquake, for example, it doesn't do a lot of good for someone to shout "Don't panic." That's negative, focussing the mind on panic. It's much better to say "Keep calm". That's a positive and much more effective way of giving the same message.

Might it be useful to adopt a "Keep calm" approach when promoting road safety on television, as well as the "Don't panic" strategy that's currently employed? Would we perhaps give even more encouragement to compliance with the rules of the road and improved driving manners in general, if more road safety advertisements modelled compliant behaviour, or dramatisations of how people may influence their friends in positive ways, say by encouraging them, quite forthrightly if need be, not to drive home after a party while clearly under the influence; or showing how to laugh off the provocation of another driver's rotten road manners; or how to merge lanes correctly, or the benefits to everyone of keeping to the left.

Road education, like all other education, must begin early. I know that several communities are now actively teaching road safety to their school children; and not only the children's own safety, but that of family members as well. Children are being encouraged to be good role models for their parents, and to take the initiative in urging safety on their parents. I suppose we have all seen a preview on television of the seat belt campaign which is about to be launched. It shows a carful of children without belts. None of them seems to know how dangerous that is. What about doing a shot where one of the children tells the others - and Dad - to belt up, and then shows the happy outcome of them having done just that?

I have no doubt that some of you will be thinking, who is this fellow to tell us how to do our job? Well, I am just trying to illustrate the sort of consultative, co-operative approach that I said was so essential to road safety issues. But lest I trespass further, let me now do what I was really invited here to do. Ladies and gentlemen, with my warmest best wishes for a truly productive three days, I am very pleased to declare this Fiftieth Annual Conference of the New Zealand Local Authority Traffic Institute, formally open.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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