Thursday, January 25, 2024

Bruce Cotterill: Old cars, bad drivers and roads that need fixing

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.


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.


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.

Bruce Cotterill, a five time CEO and current Company Chairman and Director with extensive experience across a range of industries including real estate, media, financial services, technology and retail. Bruce regularly blogs on - where this article was sourced


Kevn said...

Bruce, Clearly you must be a keen car spotter. How old were these four 'old' cars in this incident?

Hazel Modisett said...

"Old vehicles are less efficient, less environmentally sound and less roadworthy".
Absolute tripe !
If well maintained, older vehicles are equally as fuel efficient as modern cars & in some instances more so. Older vehicles cost far less to produce & consumed way less energy & the more older cars still being driven means less new cars being built as production is related to sales. In addition, older cars are easier & cheaper to maintain. Roadworthiness does not enter into the equation as ALL vehicles in NZ must pass WOF/COF & are thereby equally roadworthy. EVs expend 5x the amount of energy to produce (fossil fuels) & require regular expensive maintenance by qualified techs, not to mention the fact that the batteries have a limited life span, are expensive to replace & require strip mining by mostly child labour to provide the required lithium. EVs also require fossil fuels to charge at a cost far exceeding the price of regular fuel & have a habit of catching fire & burning to the ground. I own a late model Ford Ranger & a 1968 Ford F100 & the Ranger is junk in comparison & soon to be sold. The problem you faced was due to idiot drivers, NOT the age of the vehicle they were driving...

Allan said...

I would like to take issue with Bruce on one point, that of the age of cars. Age doesn't make a car unsafe, lack of or bad maintenance does and this should be picked up on the annual WOF. I recently watched my wife's car go through it's WOF and at one point I thought they were going to check that the radio was tuned in correctly.
It can be argued that the more modern cars have greater safety features which give better handling and braking. The problem with this is that people can come to rely on these better features and drive a little harder in the knowledge that these features will save them if they get into trouble. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don't

Robert Arthur said...

It is fashionable to blame older vehicles, but having driven many miles in recent times I am far from certain. Sure the ABS, stability control, wide track, etc makes for surer stopping and safer evasion, and the air bags etc reduce injury. But I am convinced the major cause of accidents today is lack of or insufficient attention, which often follows from a sense of remoteness from the situation. Maybe not in the case quoted, but utterly boring roads also contribute. In modern cars the occupants are generally a long way from the windows, there is almost no road or engine noise, and the power steering etc provides no feel. Drivers listen to the radio and music and have a myriad other distractions, legal or not. (Phones, navigator displays, dashboard displays some very complex, puzzling controls unfathomable without close attention or barely visible etc. In a few years of driving moderns I have found myself closing unexpectedly on other vehicles far more often than previously, usually due attention to dashboard devices and indicators away from the road ahead, or plain tedium. The 2 second rule assumes a reasonable degree of attention. After the accident very few admit they were preoccupied. There was a time when there was almost no scope for legal overtaking on the left so drivers did not need to persistently monitor following traffic. But now a myriad situations require concerted attention to the mirrors, during which time attention ahead is minimal.
Another unfortunate feature today is that the shoulder is often very limited by a safety fence. These turn minor incidents into car write offs. And divert errant vehicles back into traffic so occupants of more than one become involved, and more than one written off. It all adds to GDP so there is little incentive to improve.

Ray S said...

The 2 second rule at 100k works OK in principle, but, all a 2 second rule does is make room for someone to jump in. The end result being that in a stream of traffic approx. 1 KM long, you finish up at the end of the stream.

In fact, a 2 second rule on Aucklands motorways would allow 2 trucks and a Tesla to jump in. Even at 100K.

Anonymous said...

When spending their annual roading budget (seal extension) our local council made a conscious decision to have long and narrow roads (with little or no run-off area) instead of short and fat ones. They explained away the obvious dangers by saying that people should be better drivers! I wonder how many lives have been lost or damaged because of the dumb attitude of council staff and councillors who preferred to spend the annual funding on vanity projects.

Anonymous said...

Drivers must stop for pedestrians waiting to cross on a pedestrian crossing, so yes, as a driver you have to scan the footpath. That’s why the signage for a pedestrian crossing is so big and clear on the road

Anonymous said...

Firstly, get these enormous heavy mega trucks with ridiculous sized loads off roads that were never designed to take them. They cause havoc with the roads. These loads were once serviced by rail and coastal shipping but that all became too hard. Now it is about trashing the roads. Upper South Island is a classic of truck munted roads.

Secondly stop forcing people wanting a new car to buy an EV - an environmental catastrophe if ever there was one. If my only option is an EV I will drive my internal combustion engine to the end ( probably when it is mandated mechanics must not fix them and no parts are to be manufactured and all old cares must be donated intact to government centres to ensure no parts harvesting). All run by greenie enviro vegans who can’t enjoy ice cream( it is dairy and cows fart) can’t wear wool or leather or silk ( animal by products), cant wear cotton because of excess water usage or bamboo because of extreme chemical treatments and certainly can’t wear anything synthetic. Skinny naked angry bureaucrats speaking te reo Maori and saving the world.

Thirdly, as others have noted, a well maintained old car is perfectly safe if driven properly and often, dare I say it, a lot of fun. Youngsters these days just don’t appreciate the challenge of listening to the car, changing gears and the like. Tough for them.

Robert Arthur said...

More information about the long term costs and the driving habits of the 2 million km old Toyota reported a few months abck would have been of interets. But the Trade, anmd th newspapers who rely on their advertising, did not pursue this CO2 conserving marvel.