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Tougher laws no silver bullet for road accidents

Wednesday 31 July 2013

Tougher laws no silver bullet for cyclist and pedestrian accidents

A leading University of Otago injury prevention researcher’s policy brief is casting doubt on increased penalties as the answer to reducing careless driving causing injury to vulnerable road users** (VRU) such as cyclists and pedestrians.

This timely work was released against a backdrop of increased frequency of serious adult cyclist/traffic injuries – having more than doubled for adults (25 and over) from 2002-2011, in addition to more than 34 bicycle fatalities involving motor vehicles since 2007.

In a recent article in the New Zealand Medical Journal Professor Hank Weiss and Aimee Ward discuss why more stringent laws, on their own, are unlikely to achieve a significant deterrent to careless driving causing injury or death to vulnerable road users.

They say an international comparison of laws in various US states and New Zealand regarding careless, as distinct from dangerous driving, shows that there are already substantial laws on the book in New Zealand to penalise careless drivers.

These include up to three months imprisonment or a fine of up to $4500, and licence disqualification for six months or more. In fact the laws for careless driving are generally stricter in this country than the USA, they say.

“However enforcement is another matter and it remains a question as to whether laws against careless driving are applied consistently and regularly on the most egregious cases of harm inflicted on vulnerable road users, ” says Professor Weiss.

They point out that crash figures do not reveal the proportion of convictions of at fault drivers in serious crashes involving motor vehicles and cyclists. They say this is important information in determining whether the application of the law is adequate or not, for both deaths and injury.

The authors say that in more than half the careless driving cases involving crashes between cyclists (and other VRUs) and motor vehicles, drivers claim they ‘never saw the cyclist’, or saw them too late. Other research shows that these claims are a real phenomenon.

They do make the point, however, that laws and penalties against the more serious offence of dangerous driving are more lenient in New Zealand regarding maximum prison sentences compared to those in the UK, USA, Australia and Canada. Dangerous driving offences are usually treated as criminal cases, but were not the focus of this paper.

In countries like Germany and the Netherlands, motorists have a strict legal liability to pay compensation to injured VRUs, putting the legal onus on drivers, and sending a clear message that the road is a shared space. However this is difficult under ACC legislation in New Zealand. Many EU countries also have far superior and safer cycling infrastructure than New Zealand.

“In New Zealand, only toughening laws to protect VRUs and expecting a measurable effect on driver behaviour is naïve, and is more about justice than deterrence,” says Professor Weiss.

“Instead a mix of traffic engineering solutions to protect cyclists and other vulnerable road users needs to be implemented, in addition to consideration of law changes.”

These include separating vehicles from VRUs, calmed bicycle boulevards, slowing traffic down and building safer intersections, amongst a range of measures.

The article also notes a recent unpublished study by the Ministry of Transport which carried out a cost/benefit analysis on increasing penalties for careless and dangerous driving. Their conclusion too was that strengthening the law is unlikely to be cost effective.

**The World Health Organisation defines a VRU as any non-motorist in the role of a cyclist, pedestrian, highway worker, person riding an animal, stranded motorist, skateboarder, roller skater, a scooter or similar road user not enclosed in an automobile or truck.


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