Every vehicle on our roads is controlled by a two kilogram supercomputer: the human brain.
You might think that something as simple as putting on a safety belt or helmet would be pretty easy for it.
Yet, of the 232 people killed in road accidents last year, over a third ignored these basic safety precautions. Ninety-one were not wearing a seatbelt or helmet. Of the 53 killed riding motorcycles, 12 were riding without helmets and one of the six cyclists who died was not wearing a helmet.
For most people it’s a no-brainer. The law requires all car passengers to buckle up, front and back. The Ministry of Transport (MoT)has conducted a roadside survey of seat belt wearing for decades. This year it surveyed 95,000 New Zealand drivers and only 3.4% were not wearing one in the front seat. Those drivers have a 20 times greater risk of dying on the road – only slightly less extra risk than if they were riding a motorcycle.
Going through the 2015 fatal crash reports involving unrestrained drivers, a disturbingly high proportion combined ignoring seatbelt rules with being over speed and drink driving limits. Many were single vehicle crashes and more were rural than not. But even those who are drunk and speeding don’t expect to crash. They may think they are too good at driving to crash and are in the same category as those who think “it isn’t far, I won’t buckle up”. Because seatbelts and helmets don’t make crashes any more or less likely; it's that they make a huge difference to the impact if an accident does happen.
At high speed, unrestrained people or pets in cars fly through windscreens. At lower speeds, even as low as 18km/h, nobody is strong enough to stop themselves smashing their heads. Brain and spinal injuries are some of the most expensive injuries ACC deals with, because round-the-clock care continues for the remainder of patients' lives.
Stu Ross, ACC Roading Manager, says research into failure to wear restraints is a priority. ACC, the AA Research Foundation, MoT and the NZ Transport Agency are all taking a closer look at the data to see what can be done.
For those who treat the damage, improvement can’t come soon enough.
Li Hsee, New Zealand branch chair of the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons says: “Unfortunately, most surgeons know the devastating effects of road trauma all too well. In the case of trauma surgeons, we experience it on an almost daily basis. Some of the injuries that we see from road accidents are truly horrific, and even if they are not life-threatening, can affect the individual for the rest of their life. It is heart-breaking that in many cases the use of a simple safety belt, child seat or helmet could have considerably lessened the severity of the injury.”
Adults should buckle themselves in and are responsible for the safety of any children they drive, too. Children must be secured in an approved child restraint until their eighth birthday.
International best practice recommends the use of a child restraint or booster seat until children reach 148 cm in height and babies should be in a rear-facing restraint until they are at least two years of age.
According to the MoT survey, 93% of children aged under five have proper car seats, with 3% using adult seat belts. An adult seat belt provides very limited protection for them, or for the two-thirds of five- to nine-year-olds who also rely on them. Children can easily slide out from under a standard seatbelt on impact.
Cycling or motorcycling without a helmet is a good way to exchange concussion for permanent brain injury or death. Like seatbelts, helmets – on motorcycles or bicycles – don’t stop crashes happening but make a vast difference to the consequences of them. Studies have conclusively found helmet use “dramatically” reduces the risk of head injury, and good quality helmets can make a significant difference to the protection provided. The road code advises against second-hand or damaged helmets.
While more young people ride motorcycles and bicycles, older riders tend to die on them, because older bones don’t bend as well.
Rideforever, an ACC programme, recommends wearing boots, gloves, back protection and leathers as well as helmets and, as protection is part of the overall safety system, riders should buy quality. Anything else is false economy.
Scooter riders may not go as fast as motorcycles but are vulnerable to the same crashes and injuries. Obviously, jandals and a singlet on a scooter or motorcycle are never a good idea. In New Zealand, knee injury is the second most common consequence of crashes on bicycles, and knees can involve very long and uncomfortable recovery times.
Most people are sensible about protecting themselves and their loved ones, but some are not. Police can’t be everywhere, nor should they be. Whether the cause is drunken carelessness or the notion that they’re a great driver or rider who doesn’t need to take precautions, the cost of unprotected motoring is a significant cost for society.
Whatever the solution, it has to be preferable to the cost and pain of treatment.
Is your car safe?
Tyres: Check pressures. Measure the tyre treads using a 20c piece; the gap between the bottom of the ‘20’ and the coin edge is approximately 2mm. If you have this depth of tread, you’re within the guidelines (1.5mm is the minimum legal depth for a Warrant of Fitness). Run your hand around the tyre to check for cuts, bulges and uneven wear. Check the spare, too.
Vision: Clean all glass, including mirrors. Ensure your wiper blades are in good condition. Top up your windscreen wash fluid. Any cracks on the windscreen should be repaired.
Lights: Check all lights work and all lenses are clean.
Cooling system: Make sure your system operates as it should. If you have to regularly top it up, get it seen to.
Service: Check engine oil level and top up if required. If your regular service is due over the holiday period, have it done early, as workshops tend to get busy prior to holidays. This is also an opportunity to have a pre-travel vehicle check.
Towing: Check the wheel bearings of your trailer or caravan and ensure they are not loose or noisy. If you’re in doubt of your vehicle’s ability to take a journey safely, take it to a professional.
AA Motoring offers two free vehicle safety checks a year for AA Members. Supplement your 12-month WoF inspection, or book in a quick check up before you hit the road.
Driver failing to ensure passenger uses child restraint or seat belt: $150 fine.
Driver failing to wear seat belt and keep it fastened: $150 fine.
Rider of all-terrain vehicle, motorcycle or moped without securely fastened, approved helmet – or a damaged helmet: $50 fine.
Failure to produce safety helmet for inspection: $150 fine.
Riding a bicycle without securely fastened, approved helmet: $55 fine.
Reported by Peter King for our AA Directions Autumn 2021 issue