Nineteenth-century road accidents
Even in the days of horses and horse-drawn vehicles, there was a risk of injury or death on the roads. Accidents happened if horses bolted, or if horse-drawn vehicles were driven recklessly. Alcohol was freely available in the 19th century, so drunken drivers were a hazard, as they are now. Young male drivers were over-represented in road accidents, another trend that has continued. Drunkenness and youthful impatience could be a fatal combination, particularly when drivers tried to ford dangerous rivers.
A basalt column in a field near Waimate North in Northland marks the site of New Zealand’s first road death and is the forerunner of the familiar roadside white crosses. Arthur, the 10-year-old son of missionary Richard Taylor, was accompanying his father on a trip to Te Puna on 12 October 1840. Arthur’s horse bolted and he fell off, catching his foot in a stirrup. He was dragged about 100 metres, suffering several kicks, including one to the head. The column, known as Arthur’s Stone, was erected by his grieving father.
Motor vehicle accidents
The advent of the petrol engine gradually made road transport faster and therefore more dangerous. Poor roads added to the risk. By the 1920s motor vehicles were more numerous, and road deaths became more common. In 1921, the first year that statistics were collected, there were 69 road deaths.
Road traffic increases
Road traffic continued to grow: car ownership doubled from 71,403 in 1925 to 150,571 in 1930. The road toll rose steadily, and in 1929 there were 178 deaths. In 1936 injury statistics were recorded for the first time. That year 203 people were killed and 4,250 were injured.
The impact of war
In the 1940s petrol rationing and the departure of servicemen and -women overseas caused a decrease in road traffic and in accidents. This downward trend was reversed in 1946 with the return of the forces. The accident rate climbed further with an increase in the open-road speed limit from 30 to 50 miles (48 to 80 kilometres) per hour in 1948.
Injuries and fatalities rose gradually in the 1950s and early 1960s. One reason was the growth in car ownership. By 1958 there were over 700,000 vehicles in New Zealand, then recognised as having one of the highest rates of vehicle ownership in the world.
1960s and 1970s
In 1960 there were 374 road deaths. Numbers of deaths rose steadily during the decade. In 1969 there were 570, and in 1973 an all-time high of 843 was reached. There were several reasons for this increase:
- large, powerful cars were imported, and petrol prices dropped – cheap fuel and higher possible speeds led to more fatal accidents
- after the post-war baby boom there were more young adults who could afford to buy cars
- New Zealanders became more mobile and keen for travel and experience
- the open-road speed limit was raised to just under 100 kilometres per hour in 1969
Drinking and driving
New Zealand’s long-established drinking culture and the new driving culture made a disastrous mix. From 1917 until 1967 the ‘six o’clock swill’ was in force: pubs were required to close at 6 p.m., so men spent the period after work binge-drinking. There was a surge in drunk drivers on the road between 6 and 7 p.m., when most motor accidents happened. Drinking patterns, but not attitudes, altered when hotels – increasingly large ‘booze barns’ with adjacent car parks – began closing at 10 p.m. The peak accident time became 10 to 11 p.m.
When the speed limit was temporarily reduced to 80 kilometres per hour during the oil crisis of 1973, there was a noticeable short-term drop in the road toll.
The road toll and injury rate remained relatively high until the mid-1990s, when it began to decline markedly. Recently there have been fluctuations. In 2006 the road toll hit a 40-year low of 393, but it jumped to 422 in 2007. In 2008 the death toll fell to 366, probably due to high petrol prices, which keep vehicles off the road. The number of people injured on the roads grew steeply after 2000, when the total was 10,962 – in 2007 it was 16,013.
Between 2011 and 2020 the average annual road toll was 321 – nearly the passenger capacity of three Boeing 737-700 aircraft.
Road accidents today
Since the 1960s public awareness of hazards, intensive policing, road improvements and safer cars have helped reduce the road toll. However speed and alcohol are still major reasons for accidents, and 25% of people killed in 2008 were not wearing seat belts. Other factors are more cars, fatigue, carelessness (particularly at intersections) and high numbers of young, inexperienced drivers. Recent problems include greater drug use, cellphone distraction, and the ‘boy-racer’ phenomenon.