Is New Zealand ready for Vision Zero?


There are 300 avoidable deaths and 12 thousand injuries per year on our roads. Why do we tolerate that? Is it time for a better way? Is it time for Vision Zero?

Vision Zero is a radical road safety approach which aims to achieve a road transport system with no fatalities or serious injuries.

It started in Sweden and was approved by their parliament in 1997.

A core principle of Vision Zero is that ‘Life and health can never be exchanged for other benefits’ rather than the more conventional comparison between costs and benefits, where a monetary value is placed on life and health, and then that value is used to decide how much money to spend on a road network towards the benefit of decreasing how much risk.

Vision Zero is based on four principles:

  • Ethics: Human life and health are paramount and take priority over mobility and other objectives of the road traffic system

  • Responsibility: providers and regulators of the road traffic system share responsibility with users;

  • Safety: road traffic systems should take account of human fallibility and minimize both the opportunities for errors and the harm done when they occur; and

  • Mechanisms for change: providers and regulators must do their utmost to guarantee the safety of all citizens; they must cooperate with road users; and all three must be ready to change to achieve safety.

Is Vision Zero realistic?

Let’s not confuse the vision with objectives. Vision is where we want to be. Objectives are the milestones we pass on the journey.

Doesn’t New Zealand’s current approach, Safer Systems, aim to reduce deaths and injuries?

It lacks ambition and vison. Safer Systems appears to be ‘business as usual’ as the fear is safer (lower) speed limits will curtail economic productivity. This approach violates the first principle of Vision Zero road safety: “Human life and health are paramount and take priority over mobility and other objectives of the road traffic system”. Furthermore, it overstates the ability of the posted speed limit to generate a high throughput of motor vehicles; which is typically more influenced by the intersections, traffic lights, traffic congestion, road works, crashes, slow moving vehicles, etc.

The narrow objectives of NZTA’s draft Speed Management Framework (ie: ‘balancing’ safety with economic productivity) fail to recognise the wider significant benefits of lower traffic speeds, such as:

  • attracting people to walk & cycle; as specifically sought by the Cycling Safety Panel’s recommendations

  • place making and liveability

  • reducing transport emissions (eg: CO2, noise, particulate matter and toxins)

  • enhancing network efficiency and providing more reliable travel times for motor vehicles users.

Road deaths per capita in NZ are twice that in UK, Sweden and Norway. We can do much better.

What do you think? And what would success look like?

Idaho vs New Zealand – Who stops at red?

So red light jumping and bikes are the new golf, according to Chris Wikaira and Tony Doe. This bothers me on several levels…

First, describing Wellington’s RLJ bicyclists as color-blind, male, racing cyclist, CEOs and executives who have money to burn on flash bicycles and accessories is a form of “othering”. This is the idea that “they’re not like me”, and throughout history this has been the basis for justifying every horrible thing that a person can do, or has done, to another person. The reality is that that person on a bike could be a radio host, your child’s school-teacher, your neighbor, the mayor, or anyone else that’s not so different than you.

Second, I’m not a fan of singling out bicycles when it comes to road safety in general, and red lights in particular. I consider myself a “road safety advocate”, rather than a “bicycle safety advocate”. Pointing out that bicycles run red lights ignores Wellington’s “jaywalking culture” and the most dangerous red light runners in Wellington: Motorists.

It would be one thing if those RLJs were caught while looking for RLJ motorists, but they were all recorded while just passing through that one intersection near the Basin Reserve.

Here’s another RLJ compilation by one of London’s most famous helmet-camera bicyclists. Count the RLJ bicyclists…

Third, when the topic of RLJ bicyclists comes up, the two sides of the “debate” tend to be “it’s fine” and “no it’s not“. This ignores the fact that there are different types of RLJ. Is it OK to RLJ if the road is empty and the traffic-light isn’t sensing a bike? Is it OK to RLJ over a pedestrian crosswalk if it’s empty? Is it OK to RLJ as long as no one gets hurt? Is it OK to RLJ because you’re in a hurry?

For the record here, one of the reasons why it’s not OK to RLJ in a motor vehicle (unless you’ve got flashing lights and sirens) is because a motor vehicle is a steel and glass cage that isolates its occupants from the outside world. Even a motorcycle helmet has a significant effect on vision and hearing. Bicyclists in most of world don’t bother with helmets at all, but even in NZ our bicycle helmets are little more than styrofoam hats that do not impede visibility or hearing. On bicycles, we are much more closely connected to the world around us, and we can see and hear other traffic (this includes other bicycles, pedestrians, skateboarders, etc) much more easily than motorists.

Fourth, and this is really an extension of #3, is that this type of “debate” such as that raised by the radio show ignores the fact that bicyclists can not only RLJ safely, but allowing bicyclists the personal discretion to RLJ can improve safety.

Have you heard of the “Idaho Stop“? Idaho passed a law in 1982 that allows bicyclists to treat “stop” signs as “give way”, and red-lights like stop signs.

Would you believe that the law has been in effect for 30 years, has been attributed to increased bicycling mode-share and the year after it was passed  bicycling injuries were REDUCED BY 14.5% and “the decline in injuries is consistent with the strong indication that the law actually improves overall roadway safety“.

So going through red lights can make bicycling safer? Yes!

For now, the law in NZ doesn’t allow bicyclists any discretion when facing a red light. Hopefully this will be on CAN’s to-do list in the near future. It’s about safety! So let’s stop arguing whether or not it’s OK for bicyclists to RLJ, and let’s shift the discussion to: “Why is it still illegal for NZ bicyclists to RLJ“?

Cycle culture vs infrastructure?

I’ve been noticing lately that a lot of things are being framed as a dichotomy. For example, a post appeared on Cycling in Auckland a while ago that drew heated debate. Its premise was that, if you’re trying to get more people on bikes, the current focus on infrastructure is pretty well pointless and we should be trying to develop a bike culture instead.

So is it really a question of one or the other?

Here’s what I think. If I look back on my own experience of starting to ride again, it was bike culture that caught my attention and it was infrastructure that convinced me to do it.

In – I think – May 2010 the Dominion Post ran a two-page spread in their lifestyle pull-out featuring Mamachari bikes, Laurie Foon and a whole lot of other cycle chic stuff. Until then I hadn’t really considered that I might be able to cycle with my clothes on. I’d assumed skirts and dresses couldn’t be done, and for someone who’s rarely in anything else that was a big deal.

I already had an exceptionally stylish friend who rode everywhere, so I met up with him and we talked about bikes and clothes and what might be possible. He pointed out that my home was at one end of the waterfront and my work was at the other, so if I wanted to bike my commute I’d be as safe as houses.

About a month later I saw a bike on Trade Me, and, loving its look but knowing nothing whatsoever about it’s quality, took the plunge and bought it. My friend came around, checked everything was working and took me for a ride along the waterfront.

I loved it! I felt so safe, but I also felt like I was floating. I refused to go home after our first venture up Oriental Bay and back, so we went exploring along the waterfront right up to the concourse at Westpac Stadium.

Having those twin pillars of culture and infrastructure made all the difference for me, so I don’t think I can buy in to any debate that holds one above the other. We need them both if we’re going to make cycling ordinary.

Image credit: Patrick Morgan

I’ve gone off helmets

I’ve been looking for a while now for evidence that bike helmets are unequivocally good – so good that they ought to be enforced on a population. But what I keep finding instead is evidence like this*:


If I’ve got my Dutch right, and I think I have, the vertical axis is deaths per billion kilometres cycled and the horizontal axis is percentage of cyclists wearing helmets. The letters are, of course, the initials of countries. Bear in mind when you look at this that the Dutch (NL on the chart) ride 15 billion kilometres a year. That’s with a population of 12 million, folks.

In the last 18 months, Israel and Mexico City have repealed their helmet laws. Hong Kong refused to implement one because of the nasty chilling effect they have on cycling. Spain has a sort of half-baked law under which you don’t have to wear one in the city but you do if you’re riding between cities – except if it’s hot or you’re going uphill. Most other countries don’t have any helmet requirement and the few that do apply it only to children. And some of those don’t even enforce it. Despite this, there’s a marked lack of people dying in droves.

We got our helmet requirement as a result of an emotive, non-evidence based campaign. Here’s a graph showing the effect of the law on head injuries in NZ at the time it was implemented.

If helmets were effective you’d expect to see a big downwards rush in the red line showing head injuries from the time the helmet requirement was implemented, right? And yet the line is carrying on in much the same way as it already was.

Everything I’ve read points towards helmets being a bad idea for a population. The effect of mandatory helmet requirements is to reduce the number of people riding, and the number (or rather, the proportion) of people riding is the single biggest safety factor. More cyclists = more safe, and New York’s measurable experience is that improving cyclists’ safety makes the streets safer for everyone.

There’s reasonable evidence that wearing a helmet in a low-speed crash provides some level of protection. But there’s also evidence that wearing a helmet can make a crash involving a car more likely(!).

And bear in mind, folks, that helmets aren’t designed to protect you if you’re hit by a car. They’re tested by having a 5kg weight placed inside before being dropped from a height of one metre. The force of the impact is measured and that gives the safety rating. The best that I can say about that is that if you weigh 5kg and you fall one metre on to the centre/top of your helmet you’ll probably be OK.

Australia and New Zealand are the only two countries in the world that actively enforce helmet laws on adult populations. So do you think we’re safer than countries without helmet compulsion? To help you decide on your answer, let me ask you this: Is New Zealand’s road safety record so good that other countries are knocking on our door saying “How the heck do you achieve this great result? Tell us your secret, please!” or is it we who are looking to other countries for guidance?

I won’t tell you the answer, you can make an educated guess. But having considered the evidence I’ve gone right off helmets.

This post will be actively moderated. Grown-up, evidence-based, good-natured comments only, please. 

*Unfortunately I haven’t noted down the source of the first graph, which isn’t helpful. If you come across it let me know. See for the English version.

Bike bells are good

It’s a bit late to recommend Christmas presents, but if you know anyone having a birthday in 2012 I have a most excellent gift idea for you.

Sweetpea Bicycles (“the bike that will love you back”) stock Crane brass temple bells and not only are they reasonably priced, they will ship to NZ for about NZ$9 shipping costs for two. Just make sure you check whether they have the lever strike (pictured on the website) or the hammer strike in stock. I thought I was getting the lever strike but it was the hammer strike that arrived.

Crane temple bells are renowned for their lovely tones, with the brass being the deepest (relatively speaking). They’re also pretty and shiny – incredibly shiny as you can see from the reflection in the image of me taking the photograph.

I find my bell exceedingly useful. I live in Miramar so my ride to work is on shared paths for a good deal of the way. If I want to pass someone or just let them know I’m there, or if I’m coming up to a blind corner on the waterfront, the bell says it all for me. I’ve noticed lately that pedestrians (aka ‘people walking along’) are getting more responsive to bells, which I call progress.

So if you’ve got a spare $25 or so to spend on someone – including yourself – this is a lovely bell that combines form and function. I highly recommend it.

*Sweetpea gets extra cred for being comprised of Natalie the bike builder, and her husband and super cute bebbeh.

Crane temple bell