Hard News by Russell Brown


No end of mileage

The country's mayors come out of their special emergency meeting in Christchurch yesterday fairly brimming with advice for parents and quite willing to conflate the Edgeware Road vehicle homicide and last weekend's drag racing accident, which killed a 20 year-old in Tauranga.

There is no indication that alcohol was a factor in the Tauranga accident: indeed, boy racers tend not to drink and drive because that's the easiest way to get your car impounded by the cops. And 80% of cars in fatal crashes involving people between the ages of 15 - 19 are less than two litres in capacity, suggesting that a law limiting engine capacity for young drivers won't really have any effect.

And you had to read to the very bottom of this story this morning to find a Canterbury police spokesman saying that "the emphasis on boy racers had pushed the issue out of proportion to other traffic problems."

But people were on a roll. Celia Lashlie declared that "our boys are choosing alcohol, violence and fast cars to show they are grown up," then intoned further on modern road safety on Morning Report today, claiming that cars were more powerful and the roads more dangerous than when she was young.

Actually, cars were more powerful and less safe in the 1960s, the driver licensing test was a joke until 1965, and there was not even a defined blood alcohol limit until 1969 (when the permitted breath alcohol level for drivers under 20 was more than three times what it is now). The road toll was 843 in 1973. Last year it was 374, the lowest in 46 years. The per capita rate of road deaths is less than half what it was in 1990.

Christchurch mayor Garry Moore said "this is a society not braying for blood" and Norm Hewitt said it was "about caring now", and advised parents to go home and give their children a hug. Nelson mayor Paul Matheson, speaking on Checkpoint, wanted to know "who's going to grab hold of this broad issue and try and bring this village of four million people back online again?"

Buller mayor Martin Sawyer, who featured in a reprise of the same issue an hour later on Checkpoint condemned "a society that's big on rights and not too big on responsibilities". (This was a popular line. Moore said New Zealand was a society strong on rights, but weak on responsibility; Lashie lamented that "the kids know their rights"; and according to TVNZ, Matheson told the taskforce that "local councils, and mayors in particular, should empower and affirm positive parenting, and the need for society to balance rights and responsibilities.")

Sawyer continued to dispense huge dollops of free-associating moral philosophy to a perplexed Mary Wilson:

It comes back to what I said though Mary - it's a collective issue. We're big on rights in New Zealand, but we're actually not that big on teaching our young people responsibilities also. Now maybe it involves some teaching of civics and stuff at schools as well, but a lot of it just comes back to the individuals and comes back to parents. And it also comes back to the messages that we're giving our young people as adults. For instance, the taskforce today talked about alcohol. Y'know as a society we have to look at the messages we’re sending young people. It's not just young people, it's adults also. Binge drinking. After all, it's us adults that have allowed the alcopops to come in. It's adults that have allowed the drinking age to go back up to 20 [sic] and it's us adults that have allowed wide-ranging liquor advertising that basically glamorises that partying lifestyle …

… it's about starting somewhere. Some of it starts with parents. Some of it starts with parents modelling good behaviour. Some of it starts with parents talking with the younger people more. So as a country we've got some issues, including regarding the way in which we bring up our young people. And unless we start facing those, the problem's not going to improve …

There's about 18 minutes of that.

Meanwhile, Clayton Cosgrove and Bob Clarkson were competing to see who could bellow the loudest: Cosgrove demanding a "zero-tolerance approach" and declaring "We have to crack down and try to save these people from themselves," and Clarkson demanding a tougher line on boy racers, because "these idiots should be ripped into".

Clarkson also declared that boy racers' licences and cars should be taken off them. Well, they already are, aren't they?

This is not to dismiss the problem of young people dying on the roads. But young people have been dying on the roads for a long time: the number of 15-19 year-old drivers involved in accidents has always been disproportionate. (you might also note that three times the number of fatal crashes involving young drivers occur in rural, rather than urban, settings).

But the number of 15-19 year-old drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2005 was half what it was in 1984. The proportion of fatal crashes involving young drivers in 1984 was 19.3%; in 2005 it was 15.5%. Over the same period, there has been a 60% reduction in the number of 20-24 year-old car drivers involved in fatal crashes and a 96% reduction in fatal motorcycle crashes for the same age group.

It's all here.

Concerns remain. The reduction of the drinking age may have interrupted the long decline in the accident rate. The youngest drivers - and their passengers - are far more likely to be at fault in fatal accidents than other victims. On a purely subjective level, the waste of young life always seems so much worse. Boy racers do represent a public nuisance in many places.

But I'm not sure if that justifies a bunch of regional mayors emerging from their meeting all fizzed-up with the idea of a national moral crisis and making pronouncements about parental responsibility; or their insistence on combining two completely different incidents and declaring it a trend. And frankly, any teenager hearing the outpourings of the last 24 hours would be amply justified in saying: it wasn't too flash in your day either, Dad …

PS: No Right Turn comes up with the graph that the government should have -- relative financial benefits of National's proposed tax cuts and KiwiSaver -- finding that "Kiwi Saver consistently delivers more to people than National's programme of tax cuts would have, and (thanks to government contributions) substantially more to those on lower incomes."

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