Road deaths jumped when police cut back on breath tests, speed cameras

What makes driving safer? As holidaymakers hit the highways after another grim annual road toll, Simon Wilson reports on the evidence for what really works in the first of a five-part series.

OPINION: Remember the booze bus? It used to be if you were out driving on a Friday or Saturday night, you knew there was a chance you’d run into a drink-driving checkpoint. Used to be a lot of mobile speed cameras in use too.

But for a couple of years now, police enforcement of the road rules hasn’t been nearly so prominent, especially in cities. And guess what? Not counting the lockdowns, deaths and serious injuries on Auckland roads are up.

Why haven’t the police been doing their job? They were funded to carry out 800,000 breath tests in Auckland in 2020 but did only half that. International best practice suggests they should be doing 60,000 hours of mobile speed camera surveillance. But they committed to only 30,000 and ended up doing just 16,800.

In the year to July, that translated into 681 speeding tickets. Not even two a day.

This negligence kills. In the three years to 2017, when there was a 33 per cent drop in alcohol breath tests, deaths and serious injuries (known as DSIs) on Auckland roads rose sharply.

After that year, the police strengthened their enforcement of drink driving, speed and other road rules, and the rates began to fall.

They collapsed during the first lockdown in 2020, but when that ended they soared back up again. In the 12 months to August 2021, just before the big lockdown, there were 59 deaths on Auckland roads and 557 serious injuries. The figures from 12 months earlier were 27 and 499.

The data is clear. Unless the police actively enforce the rules, DSIs go up. There are drunk drivers, speeding drivers, unsafe cars and people not wearing seatbelts. Mostly, they probably know they shouldn’t do it, but they do it anyway.

Early last year Auckland Transport chief executive Shane Ellison called the lack of police enforcement “really troubling”. He and his board chairwoman, Adrienne Young-Cooper, wrote to the police about it, suggesting they had “dropped the ball”.

“Police acknowledge that our performance around breath testing and speed enforcement could have been better in previous years and we are committed to improving this with our road safety partners moving forward,” the officer in charge of road policing, Superintendent Naila Hassan, told RNZ.

She said they had a new plan which would put a greater focus on road policing. That sounded good. But Hassan put a different spin on it when she talked to the Herald in mid-September.

Then, she appeared to bluntly challenge the idea that enforcement is a key to road safety. “Policing our roads alone cannot achieve the significant changes needed to prevent death and serious injury. Road safety is everyone’s responsibility,” Hassan said.

That’s bollocks. Of course road safety is everyone’s responsibility, and of course driver education is important and people should follow the rules. But you can say that until you’re blue in the face. On this issue, the most important task of the police is to enforce the rules. It really makes a difference.

Auckland mayor Phil Goff identified the same problem and wrote to Transport Minister Michael Wood and Police Minister Poto Williams about it.

Goff said, “It is of real concern that 59 per cent of those killed [in the first part of 2021] in vehicles were not wearing seatbelts, and 36 per cent of road deaths involved proven or suspected use of alcohol. These are issues that stronger enforcement could impact on.”

Since then, the police have been distracted by border controls and other Covid duties. But the roads are more dangerous than ever.

Shane Ellison says he thinks there are “positive signs that police are committed to better enforcement”, although this is “not yet translating into significant improvements in performance measures”.

He welcomes police investment in “new technology and police vans that do impairment prevention”. They’re getting better speed cameras and more mobile mini-booze buses.

Those cameras could be critical. After New York’s Department of Transportation installed cameras near 120 schools in 2014, speeding fell by over 60 per cent. What’s more, only 19 per cent of drivers who got a speeding ticket reoffended. And in parts of Europe where the open roads have radar-enabled cameras, one review found DSIs fell between 17 and 58 per cent.

The lesson in all this is clear: when we think we’ll get caught, we’re far less likely to break the rules.

The rising rate of serious crashes is not just an Auckland problem: it’s up nationwide. The chief executive of the transport agency Waka Kotahi, Nicole Rosie, says her organisation now works with the police to “significantly increase enforcement activities, particularly targeting speed and drunk driving”.

Good to know. Covid means the police have more to do these days, but road safety is always important. If you see them on patrol over summer, give them a friendly wave. The more you see them, the more they’re saving lives.

SAFER ROADS

What makes driving safer? A Herald summer series.

Today: More police enforcement
Tuesday: Better drivers or slower speeds?
Wednesday: The impact of safer cars
Thursday: Safer open roads
Friday: Safer city streets

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