In 1973, New Zealand suffered its highest ever number of road deaths, 843 in a single year. Our population at this time was just over 3 million and there were less than half the number of cars we now have on the road.

The international energy crisis and subsequent introduction of carless days and a lower open road speed limit helped with a drop in the number of road deaths in the years immediately following 1973’s tragic result. Over the next 35 years significant changes were made that have helped ensure such a horrific toll has not been repeated despite a rise in population and vehicle numbers.

Changes over this time have included lower alcohol limits, the use of hard hitting public awareness campaigns, targeted enforcement through measures such as compulsory breath testing, speed cameras and the introduction of the graduated driver licensing system, the first of its kind in the world. Vehicle safety improvements have also helped reduce the impact of crashes.

In the 2000s progress began to slow and it became clear that the focus on the Three Es of ‘Enforcement, Engineering and Education that had dominated New Zealand’s road safety approach would not be enough to bring about further significant decreases.

In 2010, following substantial public engagement, the government launched Safer Journeys: New Zealand’s Road Safety Strategy 2010-2020(external link). The strategy introduced a Safe System approach to New Zealand’s road safety effort, taking a broader focus and setting actions for safe roads, safe speeds, safe vehicles and safe road use.

Already a number of significant actions have been taken as a result of Safer Journeys(external link).

If we had the same rate of road death as we did in 1973, given the number of cars now, there would be about 1900 road deaths this year. The 2011 number of road deaths is likely to be a much more encouraging result but even so there is still a lot of work to do. The government will continue to progress Safer Journeys, and we can all play a part. Whether we are road designer or road user, a vehicle retailer or a vehicle owner there are steps we can take to improve safety on our roads and to keep the number of road deaths down.

Timeline of Road safety in New Zealand


New Zealand’s first known motor vehicle death occurs in Dunedin. A young motorcyclist dies after a collision with a train at a level crossing.


Driver licences become compulsory for all drivers.


Our first official roll toll is announced – 69 deaths. Before the official count began, road deaths were reported through radio and newspaper reports. From 1908 to 1929 there were an estimated 300 road deaths.


By this time, both Wellington and Dunedin have installed traffic lights at problem intersections. The system proves so successful that it is adopted as the national standard.


  • The first edition of the road code is sent to every New Zealand household
  • The first national road safety campaign appears. Compulsory Warrant of Fitness checks are introduced.
  • Police begin reporting injury crashes to the Transport Department. Previously, only fatal statistics were kept.
  • Traffic inspectors appointed to enforce traffic laws. 1950 The first Stop signs are used at intersections.


Motorcyclists travelling at over 30mph (50km/h) now have to wear a helmet.


Give Way signs appear.


The Department of Transport launches its first TV road safety campaign.


All new cars and light trucks are required to be fitted with safety belts. 1967 The demerit points system is introduced.


Road crash data is computerised for the first time


The first ‘breathalyser’ is introduced to test drivers’ alcohol levels. The legal limit was set at 100mg per 100ml of blood. In itsfirst year of operation 2,928 drivers are tested with the breathalyser. Only 214 are sober enough to drive!


  • Helmets are made compulsory for all motorcyclists and their passengers.
  • New Zealand suffers its highest ever road toll, 843 deaths in a single year. Our population at this time was just over 3 million.
  • December: in response to 'oil shock' open road speed limit decreased to 50mph (80km/h), from 55 mph (88 km/h) or 60 mph (97 km/h).


  • The legal blood alcohol limit is lowered from 100 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood to 80 milligrams per 100 millilitres.
  • Evidential breath testing is introduced.


  • New Zealand introduces carless days in response to the international oil crisis. There is a subsequent, massive drop in road fatalities.
  • It becomes compulsory for children over the age of eight to wear a safety belt.


Legislation is introduced that allows Courts to require repeat drink or drugged drivers to attend an Assessment Centre, and to be disqualified from holding or obtaining a licence.


The Accident Investigation System is introduced. This allowed more detailed analysis of crash data.


1 July: open-road speed limit increased to 100 km/h.


  • New Zealand becomes the first country in the world to introduce a Graduated Driver Licensing System introduced, creating a staged process for gaining a full licence.
  • Hawk radars are introduced to catch speeding drivers. These can be used from moving patrol cars as well as stationary at the roadside.


The Traffic Safety Service is merged with Police.


  • Compulsory breath testing is introduced, allowing the police to breath test any driver for alcohol, anywhere, at any time.
  • Drink drive limits are reduced for under 20 year olds. Speed cameras are put into use.


  • Cycle helmets are made compulsory.
  • Child restraints are made compulsory for 0-2 year olds.


  • Child restraints are made compulsory for 3-5 year olds.
  • The National Road Safety Plan is launched. Using hard-hitting, high profile advertising and increased enforcement, it aims to reduce the number of road deaths to 402 or less by the year 2001.


  • New Zealand’s annual road deaths is 515, the lowest number in 32 years.
  • New advertisements feature the slogan ‘If you drink and drive, you’re a bloody idiot.’


Hidden speed cameras are trialled in several locations.


The Crash Analysis System or CAS is launched. CAS holds information on crashes and maps their location.


  • Vehicle impoundment for disqualified drivers introduced.
  • Road sided suspension introduced for a number of offences including driving at double the legal blood alcohol limit.


Legislation is passed which requires all imported passenger cars to conform to an agreed, overseas frontal impact standard.


Offences are created for street racing, wheel spinning and pouring slippery substances on the road to allow wheel spinning. Further change will be made in 2009 to help crack down on these offences.

The government launches the Road Safety to 2010 strategy, which aims to reduce the number of road deaths to no more than 300 deaths by 2010.


New Zealand’s annual number of road deaths is 366. The lowest annual total since 1959.


  • The use of hand held mobile phones and texting while driving is banned.
  • It becomes compulsory for motorcycle and moped riders to switch on their headlamps during daylight hours (unless the vehicle was manufactured before 1 January 1980).
  • A law is introduced that allows police to conduct a roadside impairment test for drugged drivers.
  • A law is introduced that gives Police stronger powers to tackle illegal street racing and allows road controlling authorities to make bylaws prohibiting “cruising”.


The government launches Safer Journeys: New Zealand’s Road Safety Strategy 2010-2020 following substantial public engagement on road safety issues. The strategy introduces a Safe System approach to New Zealand’s road safety effort, moving beyond an earlier focus on drivers to set actions for safe roads, safe speeds, safe vehicles and safe road use.


A number of major changes are made as part of the implementation of the Safer Journeys strategy:

  • The driving age is raised from 15 to 16.
  • A zero alcohol limit is introduced for young drivers and repeat drink drivers.
  • Legislative changes are made to allow for introduction of alcohol interlocks.
  • Planned changes are confirmed for give way rules at intersections. These will come into force in 2012.
  • Changes are introduced for motorcycle and moped riders, including the introduction of a power to weight restriction on bikes for novices and a competency based training and assessment option for novices. Both measures will be implemented in 2012.