Road toll in 2020 lowest in years, but still 'tragedy' in year of lockdowns

While 2020 saw the fewest lives lost on New Zealand's roads since 2015, the count is being considered a "tragedy" in a year where there was limited road travel due to COVID-19 lockdowns. 

Last year, 320 people died on our roads, down from 352 in 2019 and 378 in both 2017 and 2018. It's the fewest since 2015, when 317 people were killed. 

"As we enter 2021 our thoughts are with the whanau, friends and communities of every one of the 320 people who tragically died on this country’s roads over the last 12 months," says New Zealand Transport Agency general manager safety, health and environment Greg Lazzaro.  

"While the number of road deaths in 2020 was fewer than in 2019 (352), that is in the context of a year when there was very little road travel for several weeks during the COVID-19 lockdown, and by any measure it represents a tragedy for this country."

Mike Noon, AA's motoring affairs general manager, said if you take "the April lockdown out of the equation, that accounts for all the difference between 2020 and the previous year".

"Road deaths for the other 11 months of the year have been slightly more than 2019, which is a very sad and disappointing result."

Noon says it's possible for New Zealand to do a lot better, with three years in the past decade having fewer than 300 deaths. 

"When COVID-19 first appeared and locked down the country there was some speculation that it may result in less deaths on the roads due to less driving taking place but this hasn’t ended up the case."

The AA said that while we had few international visitors arriving in New Zealand last year, there were also not many Kiwis travelling overseas.

"This is actually a bigger number than tourist arrivals through the winter months. So once the official data is available it may show that New Zealand has actually had more people within our shores and more travel on our roads this year than normal."

The AA said that overseas drivers were at fault in less than 5 percent of fatal crashes in 2019.

It believes there is a number of measures authorities can take to reduce crashes, including upgrading high-risk roads, investing more in maintenance, and increasing the number of alcohol tests.

But Kiwis should also think of one thing they can do better on the roads as well, Noon says. 

"For some drivers that might be making sure they keep a bigger following distance, for others it might be slowing their speed to the conditions, or it could be not using your phone behind the wheel or not carrying on driving when they are feeling tired.

 "The AA would encourage every driver to aim to make one change to be a bit safer behind the wheel in 2021. If all of us did that, it would add up to ultimately deliver less crashes and harm on our roads."

The NZTA says there is an urgent need to improve road safety in Aotearoa, with more than 3200 people dying in road crashes over the last decade and about 23,000 being seriously injured. 

"Those are staggering figures that we all need to take notice of," Lazzaro said.

"Deaths and serious injuries on our roads are not inevitable, and we shouldn’t accept that serious crashes are just another part of road travel. We’re all human and we can all make mistakes, but every one of us also has the power to make the right decisions which will keep the roads safer for everyone."

He said the NZTA was committed to Vision Zero, the goal of having a New Zealand where no-one is killed or seriously injured in road crashes. 

"Waka Kotahi and Police are working together with local government and others to deliver Road to Zero, the Government’s road safety strategy for 2020-2030. Road to Zero aims to reduce deaths and serious injuries on our roads by 40 percent over the next 10 years."

Helen White, the manager of mobility and safety at the Ministry of Transport, said it's "time we agreed that deaths or serious injuries on our roads are no longer acceptable". 

"Road to Zero places human wellbeing at the heart of our road transport planning. It means no longer viewing the deaths on our roads as a 'toll' that we're prepared to pay for traveling on our roads," White said. 

"We know that people are not perfect. Mistakes may be inevitable - deaths and serious injuries from crashes are not."

National road policing manager acting superintendent Gini Welch said that any life lost on New Zealand's road was one too many. 

"That's 320 people whose families were not able to see in the New Year with them. We can do better," she said.

"There is nothing new in the circumstances of these crash deaths.Many have inattention, speed, and alcohol as contributing factors. It's incredibly sad, and also frustrating."

Despite 2020 having fewer deaths overall than 2019, the Christmas and New Year holiday road toll is more than double than of the previous year's with nine deaths. The holiday period doesn't end for another four days at 6am on January 5.

Welch said police work every day to prevent deaths and serious injuries "but we can't do it alone".

"We need everyone in New Zealand to make a simple New Year’s Resolution - help prevent further fatalities on our roads.

"You can do that by putting away your phone, ensuring you drive free from alcohol, drugs and fatigue, wear your seatbelt, and drive to the conditions within speed limits."