The risk profile for 52 sections of NZ highways

State Highway 2. File Image: SunLive.

Many New Zealanders are packing the car and hitting the road for the summer break.

Every journey comes with risk. Alcohol or drugs, speed and seatbelts all play a part. The nature of the road does too.

The NZTA crash data shows most crashes on state highways tend to happen closer to large urban centres, where most of the traffic is concentrated. These zones are said to have a higher crash density, but that metric is far from painting the complete picture of the risks faced on roads.

The New Zealand Road Assessment Programme takes into account traffic volumes when weighing up road safety. It shows that larger highways, overall, pose lower personal risks to drivers and passengers than lesser travelled routes.

Driving on New Zealand's main artery, SH1, for example, is far safer than on the route connecting Milford Sound to Gore in the South Island (SHs 94, 95 and 96).

Just under one in every three crashes in 2016-18 happened on SH1, which makes it the third-highest for crash density among all highways. But KiwiRAP's assessment of SH1 shows it's mostly a low to low-medium risk highway. In fact, only a small fraction of the 2100 kilometres that make up SH1 is deemed a high crash risk zone – the 80km section between Ohaeawai and Kaitaia, in the Far North.

SH35, the scenic route around the East Cape, on the other hand, is deemed medium-high risk for more than 50 per cent of its 325km.

Risk is typically higher on "lower volume, lower standard, mountainous roads," according to the Road Assessment Programme. That is why larger highways have higher speed limits and more infrastructure.

Country roads are also more dangerous than any sort of highway, even the smaller ones, and far less equipped to deal with accidents when they happen.


After all-time lows in the early to mid 2010s, crashes began creeping up after 2015. Fatalities and serious injuries caused by highway accidents peaked in 2017 at more than 3000, the highest verified figure in the 19 years of data made available by NZTA.

The upward trend has come with an increase in the total distance people travel annually, a natural consequence of the population growth New Zealand has seen in the last two decades. But it still worries authorities.

Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter last week announced a 25 per cent boost in road safety spending over the next decade.

The safety spend was unveiled as part of the Government's final road safety strategy, 'Road to Zero'. The strategy aims to reduce deaths and serious injuries on our roads by 40 per cent over the next years.

Fatalities have started receding since 2017. Last year, there was a 3 per cent reduction in deadly crashes. In 2019, New Zealand highways are on track to be less violent than the last two. Up to December 16, 296 people had died as a result of 253 accidents.

According to the Ministry of Health, motor vehicle accidents are among the major causes of death in the country, especially among the male and younger populations.

Planning is only the first step for safety. There are plenty more official resources for education and your favourite map application can also be really helpful. So, if you are hitting the road these holidays, please, drive safe.


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