Is there a correlation between the reduced numbers of Police and the rising road toll?

25 January, 2018

The last time I wrote for Interest about the road toll was in October. At the time, Police were predicting 60 further deaths for 2017. The year ended with 86 further deaths and a final toll of 379 lives – about 10% higher than 2016 and 40% higher than 2013 even after accounting for more driving.

The Police were in the news again this week thanks to an investigation by Radio NZ showing that road Police numbers had fallen even as the risk of dying has increased.

Police Association President Chris Cahill said ‘Without a doubt, there has to be some correlation… The limited or lesser amount of road policing enforcement being done will be having an effect on the road toll’.

Former Assistant Policy Commissioner Dave Cliff told Radio NZ that this was a ‘serious concern… [because] the deterrence value of a police officer, the deterrence value of speed cameras, is major’.

Cahill’s comment will be true – any spending on Police will have some effect on the road toll – but how much depends on the accuracy of Cliff’s comment that Police are a major deterrent.

As National’s Police spokesperson Chris Bishop pointed out in the same article, Police are but one of many factors that influence the risk of death or injury.

Let’s put some of this in context.

Expenditure on road police

Every three years, the Government issues a Government Policy Statement setting out its objectives for transport and providing funding signals to the NZ Transport Agency and councils. This includes funding for road policing which comes from the National Land Transport Fund. What the Police is contracted to provide is negotiated between Police and the NZ Transport Agency.

In 2012, the Government issued signals that suggested it would be happy with a small reduction in road police spending. The NZ Transport Agency acted on those signals and, after accounting for inflation, provided 2.4% less funding to Police.

This was reversed in 2015 and funding increased by 4.7%.

Overall, inflation-adjusted funding for road policing has been pretty flat between 2009/10 and 2017/18.

The impact on Police effectiveness will be large

On the face of it, flat expenditure and a gradual decline in the number of Police by 7.6% over 10 years might not seem like a big deal.

For comparison, the amount we travelled as a country reduced slightly between 2009 and 2012 and the incidence of death per kilometre driven continued its historical decline. A small reduction in policing might not have made much difference.

Further, if we’ve swapped officers for lower-cost speed cameras, it’s possible that the level of road policing hasn’t materially changed and allowed those officers to be redeployed to other Police activities.

However, we’re also driving much more now. Kilometres travelled in 2017 are expected to be around 15% higher than in 2013. And every kilometre we drive carries a 40% higher risk of death than it did in 2013.

Police are also funded for a whole lot of things speed cameras can’t do. Police issue tickets for drink driving, cellphone use, not wearing seatbelts and other high-risk behaviours. They conduct drink driving tests, assist at accidents and give road safety sessions at schools.

The table below is representative of the impact on Police outputs:




Output Target Actual Target
Enforcement (e.g. tickets, prosecutions) undertaken for:
'High-risk' driving offences per 10,000 population 775 to 825 790 450 to 600
Speed per 10,000 population 590 to 635 630 555 to 600
Not wearing seatbelts per 10,000 population 100 to 125 120 94 to 120
Mobile-phones per 10,000 population 40 to 60 60 38 to 56
Crash attendance and reporting
Number of emergency traffic events responded to 28,000 to 38,000 48,000 40,000 to 50,000

In 2016/17, Police had performance targets such as issuing about 800 tickets for ‘high-risk’ behaviours per 10,000 population. For 2017/18, that target has dropped to about 500 tickets. Almost every performance target (full set 
here) has dropped.

This would be acceptable if Police enforcement was achieving its goal of reducing risky behaviour, but we’ve had months of Police imploring people to drive more safely while the incidence of death continues to rise. Even seatbelts and cell phones, two factors widely cited as needing addressing, have seen reduced enforcement.

Actual enforcement actions tend to be at the top of target ranges. The maximum of the 2016/17 target was reached in the case of cell phones. This suggests that the target prevented Police from doing more to address cell phone use. In 2017/18, the target has reduced.

One of the few actions Police have been funded to do more of is attending emergency traffic incidents – from about 33,000 to about 45,000.

It seems that enforcement has been reduced so that Police can attend a growing number of accidents.

If Police enforcement makes a reasonable contribution to safety, this doesn’t bode well for 2017/18’s road toll.

The impact on overall policy effectiveness is uncertain

Road policing wasn’t a special target for cost-saving in 2012. Essentially every activity, from public transport to running the NZ Transport Agency, was reduced to free up money for state highway improvements, dominated at the time by the Roads of National Significance.

Figure: Funding ranges by activity class, 2009/10 to 2017/18

Graph Sam

Funding reductions also occurred for road safety promotion (e.g. advertising, education) and, likely, state highway safety improvements. Last year I noted that improvements to dangerous stretches of roads had been delayed because funding was directed elsewhere.

The reduced focus on infrastructure improvements, advertising and education, at the same time as policing, makes it difficult to draw conclusions as strong as the Police Association President might like.

But it shouldn’t be so difficult for the Ministry of Transport and the NZ Transport Agency. These agencies are resourced to monitor and evaluate safety interventions and advise on such things as whether Police should be a funding priority.

Why the secrecy?

Recent media coverage of the road toll has seen dozens of interviews with government employees. Some have expressed exasperation. Some have pointed to studies they’ve commissioned that conclude the road toll’s still going down and there’s no problem. Some have speculated as to causes, but only those within drivers’ control.

No agency – not the Ministry of Transport, the NZ Transport Agency or Police – talked about the reduced expenditure on road safety promotion, road maintenance and improvements. Even if they did, none would have been able to say which interventions are most cost-effective.

Certainly, no agency mentioned declining Police numbers. Despite huge public interest, it took Police three months and two Official Information Act extensions to release the data to Radio NZ.

The Ministry of Transport’s Briefing to the Incoming Minister didn’t mention the issue at all. If the Policy’s briefing did, it has been kept it from the public:

Graph 2

Agencies are required to provide free and frank advice to Government and to be transparent with the public. Agencies are also meant to aide public discussions about issues like these and guide people through the choices we have.

The next big chance to do that will be in consulting on a Government Policy Statement early this year. Agencies are going to have to lift the quality of their advice and be a lot more transparent if we’re to get the best from our transport system.

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