The number of people killed on New Zealand’s roads each year is high in relation to the population. In 2008, 366 people died, an improvement on the 2007 total of 422. The average annual road toll between 2011 and 2020 was 321, nearly the number of deaths that would result from three Boeing 737-700 plane crashes. The injury rate is even more shocking – in 2007, 16,013 people were hurt in motor accidents.
Accidents involving a car, bus, motorcycle or truck, and occur on public roads, are included in official statistics. These accidents may also involve pedestrians or cyclists.
There are more road deaths in some parts of the country. This reflects regional population differences, the number of major roads in a region, and roading standards. Between 2006 and 2007 road deaths climbed significantly in Canterbury, Manawatū–Wanganui, and Waikato.
Accidents that happen on private land, such as tractor accidents, are not counted in road accident statistics, and neither are crashes that do not involve a motor vehicle – for instance collisions between cyclists and pedestrians.
In 2006 the New Zealand road-death rate was 9.4 per 100,000 people – slightly above the OECD median, and higher than Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom. The death rate for drivers aged 15 to 24 was particularly bad, as in other countries.
The worst motor vehicle accident in New Zealand’s history happened on the Brynderwyn Range, Northland, on 7 February 1963. A chartered bus carrying 35 Māori passengers home from Waitangi Day commemorations crashed after its brakes failed, and 15 people were killed. Most road accidents in New Zealand result in far fewer deaths – high speed multi-car pile-ups which occur in other countries are rare.
Between 1996 and 2007 drivers using cellphones caused 446 road crashes in which 34 people died and 587 were injured. Among them were 18-year-old Lucy Simon and her 15-year-old sister Isabelle, who were killed when their car crashed on a bridge south of Levin in January 2007. It is thought that Lucy was texting while she drove. Using hand-held cellphones while driving is now illegal.
New Zealand’s small population and high road-accident rate mean that many people have either been involved in an accident or know someone who has. Communities as well as families can be deeply affected by the death of a member.
Injuries caused by road accidents also have lingering effects. They range from loss of limbs and internal injuries to serious fractures and burns. Motor accidents are a leading cause of head injury, which occurs when vehicles roll or when they collide side- or front-on. Neck and spinal damage, notably whiplash, commonly results from rear-impact accidents. Recovery from such injuries is often slow and painful, and sometimes the effects can last a lifetime.
The monetary value put on the devastation caused by motor-vehicle accidents is called the social cost. It takes into account costs associated with deaths, reduced quality of life for survivors, loss of productivity, medical assistance, legal and court processes, and property damage. In 2007 it was estimated at $3.8 billion. Reducing the social cost of road crashes is the aim of intensive research and preventative programmes.
The current road safety strategy aims to bring the road toll down to fewer than 300 deaths and 4,500 hospitalisations per year by 2010. The strategy is being monitored by the National Road Safety Committee, which includes representatives from the New Zealand Transport Agency, Ministry of Transport, police, Accident Compensation Corporation, Local Government New Zealand, and Transfund New Zealand.
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.
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 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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
The rising road toll led to regulation of motor traffic.
The Motor Vehicle Act 1924 introduced penalties for dangerous driving, and drivers’ licences became compulsory in 1925. Gradually further laws and regulations were introduced, and from the 1960s penalties became harsher. Today the Land Transport Act 1998 and its amendments govern road safety, and there are regulations and rules covering issues such as penalties, licensing and vehicle safety.
The first traffic officer was employed by the Auckland City Traffic Department in 1894 to police horse-drawn traffic. A Transport Department was set up in 1929, but the government did not become involved in enforcement of traffic laws until 1937, when the first twelve traffic officers were appointed. In large urban areas, traffic policing remained the responsibility of local bodies. The centralising of traffic control occurred gradually and was not complete until 1992.
A training school for traffic officers opened in 1955, and from the 1960s a larger, better-equipped force began patrolling the roads. In 1968 the Traffic Department became a division of the Ministry of Transport. In 1992, as the Traffic Safety Service, it joined with the Police, and a separate Police Highway Patrol was formed.
Cost-cutting was one reason for the merger of the Traffic Safety Service and the New Zealand Police in 1992. The link between traffic and police work was another reason – research showed that many serious traffic offenders had other criminal convictions, making police involvement in traffic work desirable.
Reducing accidents and their effects was helped by growing awareness of the influence of speed and alcohol, and of the usefulness of seat restraints.
A 30 mile (48 kilometre) per hour speed limit was imposed in 1930. The limit was raised as vehicles became more powerful, but enforcing it was always controversial. In 1949 the first speed detector, developed locally by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, came into service. For years, traffic officers stopped speeding drivers and issued them with tickets, but in 1993 mobile speed cameras were introduced. These photographed the registration numbers of speeding drivers, and infringement notices were mailed to them.
Seat belts had to be fitted in the front seat of cars from 1965, and from 1975 it was compulsory to wear them. After 1979 they had to be fitted and worn in both front and back seats of new cars. By the late 1970s safety seats for children were becoming common. They were legally required for children under five from 1994.
Helmets became mandatory for both motorcyclists and pillion passengers from 1974. Wearing of helmets by bicyclists was promoted from 1986, and became compulsory in 1994.
From 1969 there was a legal limit of 100 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood for all drivers. In 1978 this was lowered to 80 mg per 100 ml, and in 2014 to 50 mg. For drivers under 20, the previous limit of 30 mg per 100 ml was reduced to a zero blood alcohol content in 2011.
In 1969, breath and blood tests for alcohol began, but delays in getting results made it difficult to prosecute. However with scientific advances in the early 1980s testing became more reliable.
Drink-driving campaigns began in the 1970s. Random stopping of drivers for breath tests started in 1984, and from 1988 traffic officers began issuing on-the-spot summonses for evidential breath tests. In 1993 compulsory breath testing of all drivers passing mobile police checkpoints began, and ‘booze buses’ parked there speeded up the testing process.
School patrols – zebra crossings controlled by children with signs – began in 1938, and were officially introduced in 1944. They are an important way of teaching road-safety skills to children, and help keep them safe when they are getting to and from school.
Better roads helped to make motoring safer. Road safety experts now use the Crash Analysis System (CAS), a computer program, to identify high-risk locations. Since the 1990s, there have been major improvements to state highways, and passing lanes and median barriers have been built on dangerous stretches of road.
Community and school education programmes about road safety started in 1938. From the 1970s hard-hitting television advertisements began. Motorists are given incentives to take defensive driving courses, and there are now driving courses for young and elderly drivers, who are considered high-risk groups.
Butterworth, Susan. More than law and order: policing a changing society, 1945–1992. Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 2005.
McLean, Vanessa. Commemorating traffic safety: 55 years, 1937–1992. Wellington: Land Transport Division, Ministry of Transport, 1992.
Watson, James. Links: a history of transport and New Zealand society. Wellington: Ministry of Transport, 1996.