RTF: Focus needed on driver training

By: Nick Leggett, Road Transport CEO

Could poor driver training be contributing to the grim road toll?

I first met motor racing legend Greg Murphy at a Road Transport Association conference in 2019, and needless to say, I was incredibly impressed by his knowledge of our industry and the transport sector generally. Greg was there to discuss road safety, and ever since, the message he gave about the importance of driver training has struck a chord with me.
Naturally, at this time of the year, we reflect on the Christmas holiday road toll.

Traditionally, it has provided us with a bit of a snapshot of where we are at when it comes to road safety. Unfortunately, this year the news has not been good.

Eleven people were killed on the roads between Christmas Eve and 5 January, compared with just four the previous year.

It’s the highest holiday road toll since 2017 and when compared alongside the New Zealand death toll from COVID-19 (25), which has completely dominated our lives for the last nine months, it makes for pretty grim reading.

So why is it that when vehicle safety technology is constantly improving and we’re spending billions of dollars on government strategies such as Vision Zero, do we still lose on average almost one person every day to road deaths in this country?

According to Greg, a lot of the problem comes down to poor driver training. In short, he believes much more attention should be given to improving the skills of young drivers and that comprehensive training needs to be provided to prepare them for circumstances they may strike on the roads. As most readers will be aware, the testing process for a private vehicle licence in New Zealand is a pretty once-over-lightly affair. For the vast majority of us, we’re taught by a family member in a pretty casual setting and then sit a combination of short theory or practical exams at each of the three licence stages. The whole process is set up to encourage the bare minimum of preparation and training.

Compare this with what happens in Finland, a county with a similar population to New Zealand. In Finland, initial licence training involves having to take a mandatory 18 hours of practical instruction, including lessons on a slippery surface. As well as this, a further 19 separate theory lessons are required.

The candidate must then pass a computerised theory test and a driving test in city traffic. Once this is passed, drivers are given a two-year interim licence when they are required to complete advanced driving classes, including some night-time driving, often using a simulator.

RTF chief executive with motor racing legend and road safety advocate Greg Murphy
RTF chief executive with motor racing legend and road safety advocate Greg Murphy

Only at the end of this further two-year period can a Finnish driver achieve a full licence.
Now, some of that may be a wee bit excessive but the results speak for themselves. Finland had just 210 people die on their roads in 2019, compared to 350 here.

The fact is few New Zealanders would know how to arrest a slide or regain control of their vehicle if they get caught out on a slippery or icy piece of road. As part of the licence process, every Finn is taught how to do this and, therefore, have the tools to get themselves out of difficult situations.

Almost all serious road accidents in New Zealand are the result of driver error so doesn’t it make sense when you’re spending billions of dollars on a strategy that has as its goal to eliminate all road deaths to at least address the problem we have with the skills of the average Kiwi motorist?

Unfortunately, the Government has become obsessed with speed, or more precisely the lack of it. Rather than investing to improve critical aspects of the network such as road surfaces, they prefer to just slow traffic down and our economy with it.

Greg Murphy is right. Dealing with driver behaviour and giving drivers the tools and experience to be able to drive themselves out of trouble should be top of the list if we want to get serious about reducing our road toll. At the moment, we’re just fiddling around the edges.

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