It happened right in front of me. In fact it was only 30m away.

I was riding my bike on a country road. Although the speed limit was 100km/h, and there was some traffic around, it’s a peaceful place to ride when you’re used to a life in the city.

Suddenly, a loud noise. Two vehicles are spinning. One is heading, toward me, bound for the ditch on my side of the road. Up ahead, a fourth was stationary in the grass on my right.

A quick check revealed that, amazingly, everyone was okay. An older lady driving one of the vehicles was shaken, but stoic. She had been driving to her daughter’s place she told me.

It turned out that the fourth vehicle wasn’t involved after all. It was a wrecked car, stationed on the side with police tape around the outside. Part of a road transport safety campaign apparently. But it was realistic enough to see one of the stopped drivers rush to check on those who may otherwise have been inside.

Other drivers stopped to help. An off-duty ambulance officer was checking on everyone involved. The country cops arrived within 15 minutes. Oncoming traffic slowed and everyone made room for everyone else.

It’s a common scene across the country at this time of the year. A lot of people are travelling. Roads are busy with holidaymakers and sunseekers getting away from it all. But not everyone gets home.

I couldn’t help but notice that this three-vehicle accident on a busy country road was notable for what I suspect are common reasons. Firstly, the road was narrow with no shoulder, meaning drivers with nowhere to go in the event of an incident.

One driver, turning right on a country road, had chosen to do so from the middle of the road rather than pulling over to the left and waiting for an opportunity to cross safely. Another driver was following too close and distracted by the “road safety campaign” on the side of the road, looking up only in time to see his vehicle shunt the stationary car into the third car that had been travelling in the other direction. A quick check of the windscreen stickers showed that two of the cars were over 30 years old.

A road not fit for purpose. A driver overlooking the road rules. Another driver distracted. And old vehicles.

Recent weeks have seen us wringing our hands once again as we lament the nation’s holiday road toll. This summer’s official Christmas-New Year holiday road toll was 19 people. Last year was 21. That’s a lot. Too many.

The official reports and subsequent road safety advertising campaigns suggest alcohol, drugs and speed as the main reasons. My anecdotal sample of one accident would add the following three reasons. Our roads. Our people. And our vehicles.

A road not fit for purpose.  A driver overlooking the road rules.  Another driver distracted.  And old vehicles.

Much has been made of the state of the roads and their rapid decline over the past few years. Potholes are a major theme. But they’re not the only issue. There is plenty of road damage from weather events over the past two years that sit unrepaired. Temporary speed signs and orange cones adorn roads where no repairs have taken place for 12 months or more. Elsewhere large concrete bollards have been laid to prevent a driver hitting a damaged part of the highway.

One can only imagine that the cones and the bollards are waiting for someone to come along and fix the damage. But the wait is too long. For our own safety, and the wellbeing of our vehicles, these repairs are urgent.

We love a good road. The northern part of the country has recently celebrated the opening of two newish roads.

The Waikato expressway and the so-called holiday highway north of Auckland. In the Waikato, the new expressway is already being repaired. Elsewhere newly-fixed potholes are already breaking up. Sure we have a quantity problem.

There are too many damaged roads. But we have a quality problem too. We need to do a better job of building them in the first place and of fixing them when they fail.

We need to build them fit for purpose too. Our roads are not wide enough. Sure the two sides are wide enough for two vehicles to pass in opposite directions. But all too often, if a driver needs to swerve or stop quickly, there is nowhere to go. A 2-metre shoulder would add some cost, but solve a lot of problems.

And then there are the people. Note the word “people” rather than the word “driver”. Sure, our driving leaves a lot to be desired. But there are other factors. Pedestrians, cyclists, scooter riders, and passengers all play a role in road safety too.

Whether I’m driving a car or riding a bike I continue to be surprised by pedestrians who have determined that it’s okay to simply walk on to a pedestrian crossing without waiting for a break in the traffic, or worse, without looking for one. Some will cross the road while looking at their phones! Drivers it seems, are now expected to watch not only the road, but also the footpaths, in case there is a chance that someone will jump out in front of them.

When we were young we had it drummed into us by our parents and our teachers. “Look both ways before you cross the road.” I’m not sure what happened to the education system but that doesn’t happen any more.

The diamond painted on the road before a pedestrian crossing was meant to signal a safe distance, between a car and the crossing, for pedestrians to cross. That diamond is now ignored by the majority and the driver – usually travelling at least six times the speed of a walker – is left to make the stop immediately.

When we were young we had it drummed into us by our parents and our teachers.

“Look both ways before you cross the road.”

Back in the driver’s seat, there is no doubt that our driving is a part of the problem. I’ve travelled over 30,000km around New Zealand in the past year, 5000 of which were on a bicycle. It’s like a front-row seat watching motorists at their worst.

The accident outlined above was the result of not one, but two driver errors. Yesterday morning, on a dual carriageway headed towards the motorway, a large truck overtook me as I stopped for an orange light. It changed to red just before he sped through.

We rush red lights. We’re not good at indicating. We seem to change lanes without looking. We travel too slowly around town, and too fast on the open road. We overtake in stupid places. It’s not possible to drive without expecting someone to pull out in front of you or cut across you.

And dare I say it. Too many of us are driving with one eye on our phone. Assuming we stop for the red light, too many of us are likely to stare at the phone until a toot from behind reminds us that we’re driving a car and that the green light means it’s time to move on. If we’re caught at the wheel using our phone, the fine is $150 and 20 demerit points. In Australia the penalties are at least three times that. There’s an idea that might get our attention.

I can’t help but think that improving driver education will improve driving. In an ageing population, most of us will have sat our licence more than 20 years ago. Since then roads have become busier, cars more powerful and our eyesight and reaction times are worse. Perhaps we need to rethink our driving qualifications process. Instead of renewing our licence every five years, how about we re-sit it every five years? And while we’re at it, how about a programme where new New Zealanders, here for more than say 3 months, should have to sit a New Zealand driver’s licence test. Would such initiatives help? It couldn’t be any worse.

Finally, we have to look at our fleet. According to the New Zealand Transport Agency, we have one of the highest rates of motor vehicle ownership in the world. We have 5.7 million registered vehicles of which 3.6 million are cars. Over half of those cars are more than 14 years old.

It’s ironically inconsistent that our desire to save the environment and preserve our green image has seen us give so much attention to the purchase of electric cars. In fact, we’ve done so to the point of incentivising their purchase. Surely it would make more sense to encourage the upgrading of old vehicles. Old vehicles are less efficient, less environmentally sound and less roadworthy. It would satisfy both environmental and safety concerns if we gave a heightened level of focus to getting older vehicles out of the national fleet and off our roads.

Fixing the roads will take time and cost money. The new Government says it is already treating that as a priority. Educating the people who use our roads, and incentivising the upgrade of our national fleet, is probably not on the plan of any government department. But, sooner or later we have to do something different.

The alternative is another Christmas holiday road toll.

This article first appeared in The NZ Herald, Saturday 20th January, 2024.