Road safety and mobility

This page provides an overview of the AA's policy positions on a range of issues related to transport safety and mobility.

The AA bases its views on the results of regular surveys of AA Members, research undertaken through the AA Research Foundation, and information from other researchers and experts in the transport sector.

 

Road user behaviour   

In the “safe system” approach to road safety, it is recognised that vehicles, roads and infrastructure, speeds and driver behaviour all interact to create a safer road environment.  A research study commissioned by the AA Research Foundation showed that in the large majority of fatal crashes, all four of these factors had some type of shortcoming. 

This AA Research Foundation research also revealed that about half of fatal injury crashes are caused by actions that could be described as reckless.  But the other half are better described as a lapse in safe or attentive driving, rather than intentionally reckless behaviour.

Because we all make mistakes, engineering improvements are needed on our roads that help to make roads more forgiving when people do crash. Barriers are a good example of road safety infrastructure that reduces the consequences of crashes.

However, road user behaviour is an equally important element in making roads safer, and feedback from AA Members consistently highlights “better drivers” or enforcing against poor drivers as a key activity in improving safety. 

 

The AA considers that the following road user behaviour policy approaches related to distracted driving, seatbelts, mobile phones, fatigue, and impaired driving (alcohol and drugs), will make a difference in improving road safety:

(1) Discouraging driver distractions

There are many distractions drivers face: mobile phones and in car entertainment and information systems, noisy children in the back seat, consuming food or drink or talking with passengers. All of these things take the driver’s attention off the road.

The largest-scale naturalistic study (using cameras inside vehicles to record extensive amounts of real-world driving) of car crashes undertaken in the world found 68% of crashes involved some type of observable distraction.

The AA believes distractions are as serious a safety risk as speeding or impaired driving, but driver distraction is harder to detect and as such, there needs to be ongoing education to remind and inform drivers of the risk of distractions.  

Research from the AA Research Foundation has shown that there are positive contributions that “co-drivers” can make in the car to reduce levels of distraction.  It also highlighted that there are things passengers should avoid doing.

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(2) Seatbelts

While overall seatbelt usage rates are high, the number of fatal and serious crashes where restraints are not worn confirms that this is not a problem that has been solved. 

In 2016, 100 of the drivers and passengers who died in a crash were not wearing a seatbelt.  As many as 50 could still be here with their families today if they had been. If we could get every single driver and passenger to make it click, our road toll would drop significantly overnight.

The AA Research Foundation collaborated with a number of Government agencies in 2017 to jointly commission research into the types of people dying in crashes where they were not wearing seatbelts and the offence history of those caught unrestrained.  In subsequent years there has been a reduction in unrestrained vehicle occupant deaths but it still remains disturbingly high (85 deaths in 2019).

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(3) Mobile phones

Mobile phones have become such a central part of our everyday lives that some people continue to use them while driving, putting themselves and others at unnecessary risk. The largest study done in New Zealand indicated about 1 in 40 drivers at any time will be on a phone while the car is in motion.

While NZ law only allows drivers to talk on the phone if they have hands-free equipment, even this takes a driver’s attention away from the driving task. Therefore the AA discourages even hands-free calling while driving. If a driver is going to engage in a hands-free call we advise to only do so in low-pressure situations and they are kept short. Better still, drivers could ignore the call and return it when they pull over.

Enforcement of drivers using mobile phones is not simple for Police, resulting in few people getting caught and so the behaviour has continued. Cameras that identify drivers using mobile phones have begun to be used in Australia. This technology could assist enforcement.

A coordinated plan and package of actions is required to change people’s behaviour around mobile phone use while driving – combining better detection, effective penalties, awareness campaigns and technology solutions.

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(4) Fatigue

No matter how diligent a person is, all drivers will have lapses in concentration, especially over longer trips as boredom or drowsiness kicks in.  As well as difficulty concentrating, fatigue can contribute to slower reactions, poor risk judgement, excessive speed changes and drifting across the centre-line.

However pinning the cause of a crash on driver fatigue is difficult, as are enforcement measures to stop people from driving if they’re tired.

Technology is starting to tackle this issue. Companies with large vehicle fleets have started installing cameras in their vehicles that monitor drivers for signs of tiredness.

It will be a long time before this technology is widely accessible to private motorists however, so ongoing education is needed to ensure people appreciate the risks of tiredness when driving and understand the warning signs. Some studies show that driving on 4-5 hours of sleep is as dangerous as driving over the legal drink driving limit.  It’s essential that drivers take responsible actions when they feel signs of fatigue, such as having a break or a 15-20 minute power nap, switching drivers if possible or choosing to stop driving until they are fully rested.

Authorities can help drivers with engineering improvements such as installing more rumble strips to warn drivers if they drift out of their lane and providing rest areas and warning signs on roads known to be risky for drowsy driving crashes.

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(5) Impaired drivers – alcohol, illegal and prescription drugs

Alcohol and drug consumption is a complex social issue.

Alcohol, illegal and prescription drugs are all involved in a significant number of crashes. These substances affect people’s judgement and reactions, which can make their driving less safe.

The AA believes it is safest to not consume any level of impairing substance before driving – including alcohol.

Enabling attractive alternative transport options for people travelling to and from social events is essential, but this is challenging in rural communities. Strong police enforcement is also critical to continue to deter both drink and drugged driving. In addition, effective prevention, treatment and rehabilitation services are needed for people who have alcohol or drug addiction issues to reduce the likelihood of people repeatedly driving impaired.

Alcohol

Drink driving remains one of the biggest killers on our roads and the traditional sanctions have not stamped it out. 

Large-scale testing of drivers for alcohol is a critical element in catching and deterring people from getting behind the wheel when they are impaired, and New Zealand is not where it needs to be in this area.  The number of alcohol tests being conducted has dropped from 3 million in 2013 to less than 2 million in recent years.

Research into drink driving has found that in many cases prosecution of repeat offenders makes little difference to their behaviour. This is because there is often an underlying alcohol dependency which needs to be addressed if the law is to be successful at saving lives. For this reason the AA supports drug and alcohol courts and drink drive behaviour modification therapy.

An important tool for drink drive behaviour modification is the alcohol interlock. The AA continues to strongly advocate for greater use of alcohol interlocks, which are like an in-car breathalyser.  A driver must blow into the device before and during a car trip.  If they have any alcohol in their system the interlock will not allow the car to start.  Rather than simply penalising a drink driver after the fact, interlocks stop drink drivers in real time from being able to drive.   While alcohol interlocks are incredibly effective at reducing drink driving and now a mandatory sentence for high-risk offenders, many individuals are still avoiding them in court.  Alcohol interlock sentences need to be monitored by the authorities to ensure that all the drivers who receive one actually comply and get a device installed in their vehicle.

To truly turn the tide on drink driving harm, alcohol interlocks need to be combined with assessment and rehabilitation for people with serious alcohol problems.   

Drugs

The largest study into drugged driving in New Zealand (ESR, 2010) found nearly 1 in 3 drivers who died in a crash had some type of impairing drug in their system – mainly cannabis.  Australia has been doing roadside drug testing for more than a decade and the UK introduced it in 2015 so it is long overdue for New Zealand to follow suit.  The new roadside drug testing regime needs to be introduced as soon as possible by police, to fight what the AA sees as a hidden killer on our roads.  94% of AA Members support the introduction of saliva-based drug testing.

Prescription medications can also pose a risk on our roads.  There are an increasing number of people taking medicines that can impair their driving such as strong painkillers, sedatives, heart medication and anxiety or depression treatments, but the risks from these are not well recognised.  Mixed with even small quantities of alcohol, the result can be extreme impairment.   

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Young drivers

Learning to drive is an important life skill that gives people access to employment and improves their ability to participate in social, cultural and sporting activities.

However, young drivers are more likely to crash than at any other time in their lives. This is due to a combination of driving inexperience and a still developing brain, which can make assessing risk more difficult.  Our brains do not fully mature until our mid-twenties. 

New Zealand’s graduated driver licence system has been designed to build a person’s driving skills and experience over a relatively long period of time. The AA supports this approach, but the system needs to moderate for any factors (such as accessibility and affordability) that lead to significant numbers of people actively avoiding it or not progressing through the system in a reasonable timeframe.  

A substantial number of young people are currently driving without the proper licence.  They might not have a licence at all, or they got a learner or restricted licence, but then never continue to the next steps. 

The AA would like to see the Government fund a large-scale nationwide programme to help young people that would otherwise struggle to obtain a driver’s licence and learn to drive safely.  This has even more relevance in the economic recovery from Covid-19, as young people are likely to suffer the worst impact in terms of employment and having a driver’s licence is crucial for many jobs.

Youth traffic offences

“Is youth traffic offending a pathway into the criminal justice system?” 

This question led the AA, through the AA Research Foundation to kick off a significant programme of research involving the Ministry of Transport, Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency, Police, Ministry of Justice and the Department for Courts. 

The report's findings are wide ranging but they conclude that there is a very strong case for assisting young drivers through the driver licencing system to help make safer drivers, reduce offending and reduce the load on the criminal justice system. 

Students Against Dangerous Driving (SADD)

Students Against Dangerous Driving is a student-led organisation that is active in around three quarters of all NZ secondary schools.

Since its inception over 30 years ago the AA has been a major supporter of SADD. Currently the AA and Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency are co-funders. 

SADD's team of professional advisors support students in school and community-based activity that promotes and encourages good decision-making. 

Being student led, SADD has access to and credibility with young drivers that larger organisations and government don’t have.

Young drivers need safer vehicles

Because of young people’s higher crash risk, the AA advocates for young people to have the safest vehicle they can afford. The price of a vehicle doesn’t necessarily correspond with its safety features, so buyers are encouraged to consider vehicle safety features when purchasing.  The AA recommends Members only buy 4 or 5 star cars.   

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Cyclists

Both cyclists and motorists have the right to safe and enjoyable travel on our roads and a responsibility to share the road with mutual courtesy and care.

Many drivers are also cyclists, even if it’s just an occasional recreational ride. This helps people understand and appreciate how vulnerable someone is on a bike in fast-moving traffic.

Both cyclists and motorists can behave in ways that minimise risks for cyclists and increase drivers' comfort around cyclists.  Drivers need to take extra care to watch out for cyclists - they should ensure they always give cyclists plenty of space, check for cyclists when opening vehicle doors and ensure they’re actively scanning for cyclists at intersections.  Cyclists should avoid holding up motorists for an unreasonable time, keeping left when it is safe to do so, and cycle defensively, including using lights and riding in a predictable manner, making themselves visible to motorists.  Cyclists should wear a helmet and should not wear headphones whilst cycling in traffic.

Cyclists are particularly vulnerable at busy intersections when drivers have multiple risks to focus on. In crashes, it’s not unusual for drivers to say they didn’t see a less visible pedestrian or cyclist.

AA Members are very supportive of dedicated, separated cycle ways. Cycle lanes that are added into already busy roads, and defined by painting lanes on the road, can create dangers and frustrations for both motorists and cyclists.  However, New Zealand’s road network and competition for the limited space on them determines that many of our cycle lanes take this form.

The AA’s submission on the Accessible Streets package sets out our position on several key cycling and mobility issues including safe passing distances, “undertaking”, and use of left turn lanes.

Shared paths

Shared paths are paths separated from the roadway which can be used by pedestrians, cyclists, users of mobility devices and riders of wheeled recreational devices such as scooters.  Use of shared paths is increasing in urban areas as people adopt a range of transport modes for fun and to avoid traffic congestion.

But in some areas these paths are now also becoming congested as city populations grow and the popularity of alternative transport increases.

Issues can emerge with the way people use these shared areas, exacerbated by the variety of different speeds people travel at, from walking to the fast speeds of e-bikes.   

The AA’s submission on the Accessible Streets package sets out our position on the use of shared paths.   

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Motorcyclists

Motorcyclists are exposed to unique challenges and risks on our roads. Motorcycles are less stable and offer much less protection than cars. Being smaller vehicles they are also less visible to other road users. Motorcycle riding requires different vehicle control and cognitive skills than those needed to drive a car. It is therefore important motorcyclists are informed about the additional risks and are required to undertake sufficient training as part of earning a motorcycle licence.

Like drivers, motorcyclists make mistakes.  The AA fully supports initiatives that help to improve rider safety, including the now mandatory requirement that new motorcycles sold in New Zealand are fitted with anti-lock braking system (ABS), and that bikers use their headlight in daytime hours to help make them more visible.

The AA also supports Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency and local authority initiatives to make roads and roadsides more motorcycle friendly on highly used motorcycle routes.    

Motorists need to take extra care to watch out for motorcyclists.

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Sharing the road with trucks

Trucks play a crucial role in New Zealand’s economy, but from AA Member surveys we know that motorists don’t really like sharing the road with vehicles which, in the event of a mistake, can cause a great deal of damage.

AA Members are concerned about emissions from our large truck fleet as well as the safety of trucks and their drivers, who are often under pressure to drive long distances under tight time constraints.

The trucking industry generally takes safety seriously. Many truck drivers today are monitored by in-vehicle safety technology that greatly exceeds that of private motorists’. This includes vehicle telematics systems that monitor driving style (like harsh braking or cornering, which are an indication of unsafe driving). There are also in-vehicle cameras that monitor drivers for signs of fatigue.

Trucks are over-represented in serious crashes because their greater size and weight leads to worse outcomes, especially when smaller vehicles are involved. However, truck drivers are only at fault in around a quarter of these crashes.   

To improve the safety of all motorists, the AA would like to see more overtaking opportunities on roads to allow for more safe passing of trucks; compulsory fitting of safety equipment that monitors driver safety; compulsory fitting of ‘spray skirts’ to protect the visibility for other road users in wet conditions; and compulsory fitting of under-run barriers to prevent smaller vehicles from going underneath trucks.

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Road safety infrastructure

The AA believes that one of the most effective ways to improve road safety is through improving the infrastructure on our roads - for example adding barriers, widening road shoulders, adding rumble strip, and improving road markings and signs.

AA research has revealed that half of fatal and three quarters of serious crashes are not caused by reckless behaviour, but by genuine mistakes or small errors of driver judgement. People will continue to crash for a wide range of reasons - perhaps careless, but not always deliberately reckless. Regardless of the cause, better quality safety infrastructure like barriers prevents crashes and also greatly reduces the consequences and injuries when people do crash.

Research funded by the AA has shown that drivers do take note of things like road markings by adjusting their speed when markings change, which shows that even relatively inexpensive infrastructure is effective and can improve safety.

The AA has advocated for better road safety infrastructure for a very long time because of its proven track record of reducing deaths and injuries on our roads.  We also work to educate the public, particularly highlighting less well-recognised risks such as roadside ditches, poles and trees, and encouraging people to drive with awareness of these risks.    

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Passing lanes

AA Members rate bad overtaking, inability to pass slow drivers, and tailgating as among the greatest frustrations on the road.  As our roads are getting busier with more traffic on them, these behaviours are likely to continue.

Many of these situations can be mitigated however by having adequate passing opportunities.  Many of our highways have long stretches where the only opportunity to pass a slower vehicle requires overtaking on the other side of the road. 

When there are not enough passing opportunities, motorists can get frustrated, drive in a way that annoys other motorists and take risks overtaking.  AA Member Research shows a high level of support for increasing the number of passing lanes on our highways.

All roads that carry a significant amount of traffic need to have safe overtaking opportunities at regular intervals. In addition to full passing lanes, the AA would like authorities to invest more in slow vehicle bays, wide shoulders, and pull-off areas and have standards for minimum levels of safe passing opportunities.

The AA also believes ongoing education on safe overtaking is essential, including signage on roads alerting motorists to the distance to the next passing lane, and to remind them to adhere to the road rules of keeping left if travelling slower and allowing faster vehicles to pass when a safe opportunity arises.   

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Vehicle safety

The AA has long advocated for more public education about the impact a vehicle’s safety features can have on crash outcomes.

We have called on the government to require vehicle sellers to advertise vehicle safety star ratings at the point of sale. We also advocate for policies that encourage faster uptake of vehicles with high safety star ratings, and we supported making ESC mandatory on new cars and used imports, and mandating ABS for motorcycles.

Upgrading our fleet is a complex and difficult challenge, needing a coordinated plan between Government and the industry to maximise the potential benefits.  The AA would also like to see the Government and industry working together to develop a realistic and unified action plan, for achieving a safer and greener vehicle fleet.  

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Traffic enforcement

It may sound obvious, but AA research has shown that compared with other methods of encouraging drivers to comply with road rules, having a police car on the road is among the most effective.

Police can’t be everywhere, but the AA strongly supports levels of funding that provides for highly visible road policing so motorists believe there’s a realistic chance they could be caught if breaking the road rules.

However, traffic enforcement must be fair for the public to continue to respect the rules. When people feel ‘caught out’ or that the enforcement is unreasonable, unjustified, or plain wrong the value of enforcement is undermined and people instead see it as revenue gathering. Police therefore need to focus enforcement on high risk behaviour and high risk roads and have the discretion to give drivers reminders and warnings when this is more appropriate to the offence.

Fines and other penalties

Fines alone are not always the most constructive way of dealing with traffic offending. For some people a fine doesn’t change their driving behaviour. Some motorists receive fines they cannot afford, but if they can’t pay them simply handing down further financial penalties is often ineffective and self-defeating. The threat of losing a licence can be a greater deterrent, so the AA supports targeted use of demerit points.

The AA Research Foundation’s Youth Traffic Offences project looked into traffic offending in young drivers. One of the issues highlighted by the report was 75% of fines for driver licence breaches and 90% of fines for unwarranted or unregistered vehicles do not get paid and end up referred to the courts for collection. 

From time to time, fines and other penalties need to be reviewed to ensure they are appropriate and an effective deterrent. In some cases alternative penalties such as offenders attending driver training or education courses may be an effective approach.  These should be considered as part of a review.    

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