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Traffic crashes just can’t be called ‘accidents’

Wairarapa Road Safety Council manager Bruce Pauling and police school community officer Julie Orr during this week’s campaign to reduce speeds around stationary school buses. PHOTO/STEVE RENDLE

April has been the deadliest month on NZ roads for 10 years, with 45 people dying in crashes.

The national road toll for the year reached 137 in just four months.

Three people have died on Wairarapa roads this year.

Bruce Pauling is the manager of the Wairarapa Road Safety Council and he feels sick about the carnage on the roads so far this year, and disheartened by a lot of driving behaviour he sees in the district.

And he doesn’t like the term “accidents”.

“Crashes are caused 99 per cent of the time by some kind of driver error or poor driving behaviour,” he said.

“Back in the day, we called them accidents. One definition of accident is ‘an event that happens by chance’.”

That definition doesn’t stack up with the driving behaviour he sees on a daily basis.

“On a short trip from Masterton to Greytown the other day, I saw everything from drivers failing to give way at stop signs, severely cutting corners, failing to indicate, using cellphones, wandering in their lanes, and following far too closely on the state highway.

“These actions aren’t ‘by chance’. They are made by drivers who make a choice not to take personal responsibility for their safety, and others’ safety, on the roads.”

Pauling also says headlines referring to ‘killer roads’ do nothing to promote driver responsibility, particularly when alcohol is so often a factor in road deaths.

“With the horrific upwards trending road statistics, we hear that the majority of crashes are caused by everyday otherwise law-abiding Kiwis making ‘mistakes’. This is almost certainly true. But there seems to be a popular ‘culture’ now, of trivialising this driving behaviour and apportioning all of the blame at the poor condition of our roads, and lack of lifesaving infrastructure,” he says

“Basically, we can’t ‘engineer’ our way out of every road situation in the country.”

Pauling has a few ideas to improve crash statistics but is pretty sure toughening the driving test is not the answer.

“The practical tests have been ‘toughened’ in recent times. One can virtually obey every road rule in the book and still fail, as young drivers know too well. Failing to drive in a ‘defensive driving’ mode could lead to a fail.”

He questions whether drivers who gained their licence a few years ago would pass today’s test.

So how about introducing 10-year driving tests?

“This would not be a vote catcher, I can tell you. It would need extreme political will, and no New Zealand government would even contemplate this,” Pauling says.

“There is also the question of capacity. How many extra testing officers this would require is anyone’s guess, as well as huge setup and compliance costs. Not to mention the hundreds of Kiwis who suddenly
would fail, and can’t drive.”

When it comes to toughening driving penalties for driving offences, Pauling says this has already happened for drivers who have been drinking or taking drugs.

But cellphones are another matter.

“I am in a favour of increasing fines and demerit points for illegal cellphone use. I’ve said before that this is a road safety ‘epidemic’, which is seen in an increase in ‘distraction’ crashes.”

He also believes demerit points should be introduced for seatbelt offences.

“This is a no-brainer. Around a third of people who die in road crashes are unrestrained occupants.”

Sweden halved its road toll by introducing “heaps more speed cameras” and media barriers, but in these areas “whatever is happening, it’s not fast enough”.

Away from law changes, Pauling is clear that personal responsibility is key.

“It’s great we are all talking about this, because we all use and share the road.

“How many times though, do we analyse our own driving, and admit we are sometimes slack, lazy or impatient drivers. There is always room for improvement.

“Before we blame everybody and everything for stuff-ups on the roads, take a long hard look at the ‘driver’ in the mirror [not the rear view one].”

Pauling recommends the drive.govt.nz website for anyone studying for a learner’s licence, practising for a restricted or full licence, teaching someone to drive, or wanting to
check road rules.

You can also check out Wairarapa Road Safety Council Facebook page.

Pauling’s basic safety messages are consistent.

“As always, don’t speed, drink or take drugs before driving, or use your phone when driving. And always belt up – everybody, every trip, every time.”


  1. I agree wholeheartedly with Bruce Pauling. An accident is an act of chance or as we used to say in my previous workplace “an accident was an act of God”.
    A crash implies something that has gone very wrong related to some form of error or mismanagement.
    I think it is very important to get this concept recognised. The media as well as the general public should attempt to use the term “crash” rather than “accident”.
    The road toll currently is appalling and its causes will be quite varied. The government has a responsibility to maintain safe roads and infrastructure but at the same time the driver of a vehicle has responsibilities to ensure safety for the driver, passengers and the general public.

    The progressively worsening road toll is somewhat hard to understand given the previous years of declining road mortality since the “horror years” of the late 1980’s and 1990’s. It would be very interesting to try and analyse the reasons for this.

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