The number of people killed on New Zealand’s roads each year is very high in relation to the population. In 2008, 366 people died, an improvement on the 2007 total, which was 422. However this annual road toll is roughly equivalent to the deaths that would result from three Boeing 737 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 road accident
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.
The human cost of road accidents
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 social cost of crashes
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.
Road safety strategy
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.