Saturday, December 10, 2016

The road toll statistics they tried to bury

(First published in The Dominion Post, December 9.)

I checked the latest road toll statistics a few days ago. Interesting.

For the year from January 1, road deaths were up from 291 last year to 300. For the 12 months to Tuesday, they were up from 315 to 328.

For driver fatalities, the figures were up from 138 to 151 (for the calendar year to date) and from 146 to 170 (over 12 months)

These are not big increases, but they appear to be more than mere statistical blips.

Even more interesting are some of the figures from a Ministry of Transport booklet called Alcohol and Drugs 2016.

Most of the tables in the booklet pull together figures covering the years 2013-2015 without breaking them down year by year. They reveal that alcohol and/or drugs contributed to 12 per cent of fatal smashes.

This might come as a surprise. Given the official obsession with alcohol as a risk factor (all those checkpoints, all those TV ads, all those earnest lectures from senior police officers every holiday period), I imagine most people would have thought the ratio of deaths attributable to booze must be much higher.

But what especially interested me was whether road deaths involving alcohol had decreased since the legal blood-alcohol limit was lowered on December 1 2014.

This is information of some importance, since the objective of the law change was to reduce the road toll. But you have to turn to page 8 before you find any figures relating to the year after the new limits kicked in.

These reveal that the number of alcohol-affected drivers involved in fatal crashes actually increased from 70 to 90 in the 12 months after the new law came into effect.

This was not what we were led to expect. It is the opposite of what the new limit was intended to achieve, which was to deter people who had been drinking from getting behind the wheel.

Opponents of the law change argued that it would punish safe, law-abiding motorists while hard-core drink-drivers would continue to flout the law with impunity. That appears to be precisely what has happened.

Drink-drive fatalities last year were the highest since 2010. In the 20-24 age group, the number of alcohol-affected male drivers involved in fatal crashes increased from 12 to 22 – that’s nearly double. For men overall, the number was up from 56 to 82.

If the numbers had gone the other way, I’m sure the ministry would have been shouting from the rooftops. As it is, it’s hard to escape the impression the figures were buried. 

We shouldn’t be in the least bit surprised that the law change hasn’t delivered the promised improvement. Control-freak policy-makers and poll-driven politicians refuse to accept that human behaviour can’t conveniently be changed by legislative decree.

That’s also apparent from the anti-smacking law (on average, one child continues to be killed by domestic violence every five weeks while responsible parents risk prosecution for disciplining out-of-control kids with a harmless slap) and from laughably ineffective dog-control rules, which have entered a whole new realm of fantasy with the expectation that owners of dangerous dogs will obtain special high-risk dog owner licences, submit their dogs to good citizenship tests, have their properties inspected and demonstrate they understand their legal obligations.

Yeah, right. Can’t you just see gang members meekly queuing at council offices to fill in the forms and register their blood-flecked pitbulls for obedience training?

Now here’s the key point. Any benefits arising from lower blood-alcohol limits – and so far there don’t seem to be any – should be weighed against the social downsides. As we brace for the annual bout of Christmas finger-wagging, we should ask whether New Zealanders’ enjoyment of life has been unnecessarily diminished just to satisfy the bureaucratic urge to regulate and control.

There’s an economic cost too. Country pubs - the heart of some rural communities - are going out of business and wineries can expect fewer summer visitors because people fret that a harmless tasting will push them over the limit.

Any supposed benefit must also be weighed against the undoubted change in the public attitude toward the police, who are increasingly resented as bullies and harassers - unwilling or unable to attend burglaries, but never short of the numbers to run alcohol checkpoints at all hours of the day, or to hamper law-abiding bar owners in their attempts to run a business, or to make the staging of public events such as wine festivals so onerous that some participating companies decide that it's just not worth the effort any more.


Unknown said...

Did the data include what they consider to be "alcohol affected"? If they have changed the thresholds in line with the new drink drive limits, then it may explain the apparent increase. For example, if a person who died was only included in the alcohol affected statistics two years ago if they had a blood alcohol content of over 80mg/L (or whatever the number is), but now they are including people at (say) 60, it may explain the change.

Brendan McNeill said...


There is an unspoken trade off in any society between public safety and individual liberty. We live in days where politicians are rewarded being seen to ‘protect the public’ with increasingly restrictive legislation. Consider what this government has done around ‘health and safety’ as just one more example in addition to the one you have provided.

Clearly this trend has gone too far, yet no politician appears willing to advocate for the liberty side of the equation, and nothing suggests this is likely to change any time soon.

A few years ago, I watched a program entitled ‘grumpy old men’ where they interviewed, amongst others an aging rock star. They asked him what his day consisted of, and after reflecting for a moment, he said he gets up in the morning, has breakfast, and then waits for his phone call from social services telling him he’s allowed to go for his daily sh*t.

When aging rock stars start sounding prophetic we are in deep trouble.

granddad said...

You are quite right re the drink/drive stats - ie no surprises here.
We are living in an increasingly-OSHified country/world and unfortunately, in my opinion, it will only get worse.
I have some sympathy for the politicians however. They need to be seen to be 'doing something' to seemingly every problem, however minor, that gets raised. It would take a very brave politician to say stand up against this madness.
Presumably all this is what Helen Clark referred to as 'giving Capitalism a human face'. The (neo) socialist approach appears to be if you can't beat it ("Capitalism") then hobble it with regulations and environmentalism (which overlap of course).