Vision Zero is the only ethical approach to road safety

Vision Zero is the only ethical approach to road safety

Patrick Morgan
Cycling Action Network


Last Saturday two men were killed while crossing Wyllie Road in Papatoetoe, Auckland. This was no accident. Their deaths were preventable.

There were 380 avoidable deaths and thousands of serious injuries on our roads in 2017, resulting in untold heartache and more than $4 billion in total social costs. Why do we tolerate that? How do we fix that?


Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter raised a few eyebrows last week when she announced a new road safety strategy, based on the idea that no loss of life is acceptable. She called for an audacious target of zero deaths and serious injuries. That's right, zero.


No other industry accepts hundreds of people dying each year as normal. No person I know thinks losing a loved one in a crash is an acceptable price to pay for living in a modern society,” she said.


So is Vision Zero an unrealistic dream, or a practical way to reduce traffic harm?


Vision Zero started in Sweden and was approved by their parliament in 1997. The traffic death rate in Sweden is half that of New Zealand.


Vision Zero is a radical road safety approach which aims to achieve a transport system with no fatalities or serious injuries.


A core principle of Vision Zero is that life and health can never be exchanged for other benefits. The more traditional approach is to compare costs and benefits, where a monetary value is placed on life and health, and that is used to decide how much to spend on a road safety improvements.


Everyone makes mistakes. So we need to design our transport system to account of human fallibility, and minimize both the opportunities for errors and the harm done when they occur. That's a basic principle of health and safety planning across most sectors. Why don't we apply this to transport?


Let's not confuse the vision with objectives. Vision is where we want to be. Objectives are the milestones we pass on the journey.

But doesn't New Zealand's current approach, Safe System, aim to reduce deaths and injuries? Safe System is based on safe roads, safe drivers, safe speeds and safe vehicles.


In my view it lacks ambition and vison.

Safe System appears to be ‘business as usual’ as the fear is safer (lower) speed limits will curtail economic productivity and frustrate some drivers. This approach violates the first principle of Vision Zero road safety: “Human life and health are paramount and take priority over mobility and other objectives of the road traffic system”. Furthermore, it overstates the ability of the posted speed limit to generate a high throughput of motor vehicles; which is typically more influenced by the intersections, traffic lights, traffic congestion, road works, crashes, and slow moving vehicles.


The good news is that there is growing support for an ambitious approach to road safety. I attended the Transport Summit this week, and can report there was broad support from mayors and councillors for a transport system free from deaths and serious injuries. Some local authorities have already adopted a zero road death approach.


In a petition presented to Minister Genter last Wednesday, Cycling Action Network collected more than 11,000 signatures in just a few weeks, calling for action on road safety. That includes investment in protected bike lanes, safer traffic speeds, and education for drivers and people on bikes. We all have a part to play.


The task is to have a national conversation about what the Vision Zero principle means for New Zealand. Let's get started – saving lives and preventing heartache is worth it.