An honest conversation about COVID19: Ministerial Response


I think we need to be clear up a few points of misunderstanding that people seem to have around New Zealand’s management of COVID19. A combination of misinformation being fed by news agencies such as Newstalk ZB, individuals such as Billy Te Kahika of the New Zealand Public Party and poor communications from Parliament have led to an unfortunate fog of confusion that simply does not need to exist. It is incumbent on all who know fact from fiction to make of the truth.

New Zealand has a public service that is, compared to the rest of the world, with the exception of the Scandanavian countries, very transparent about its activities. Successive Government’s have for the most part tried to maintain that transparency, which is why Transparency International has consistently rated New Zealand as one of the least corrupt countries in the world. And there are good reasons for it:

  • Whilst the Government watchdogs such as the Privacy and Human Rights Commissioners are sometimes put under undue pressure by the Government, they enjoy a freedom to operate that simply does not exist in a lot of other countries – the one time I remember a politician making a credible threat was Prime Minister John Key telling the Human Rights Commission to get into line or risk losing its funding
  • We have a high level of media freedom, but also a Broadcast Standards Authority that people can take complaints about the conduct of media outlets to, with a reasonable expectation that they will be looked into and
  • Whilst the Official Information Act is sometimes perceived as not working, is that really a failure of the Act itself, or the agencies that give effect to the Act – like any legislation it is only ever as good as the agency or agencies giving effect to it

So what has this got to do with COVID19?

Quite a lot. These checks are not adequate in my opinion, yet they along with a relatively well working legal system help to ensure that New Zealand’s elected officials and public service work to a high standard. They serve to give the public faith in the system, because the public are able to go explore options such as going to the Ombudsman’s office, or, if that fails, going to the media.

But it also means that the Government of New Zealand has access to information and data that is likely to be of a correspondingly higher standard. The officials that have been working on our COVID19 response will have been informed about the standards of honesty expected and the consequences of not meeting that standard.

Of course there will be a few along the way who do not. What happens to them is in part dependent on what they did, but also how serious their offence was. Most of the failures, are not at Ministerial level, but in lower and middle level management. Thus whilst the Minister is responsible at a national level, they cannot take responsibility for privacy and other reasons for someone failing to to do their job at Auckland airport for arguments sake. The slips at the border were most likely by people in middle management who overstepped their limits, or failed to spot a potential case. In the same way the Minister of Health cannot be responsible for whether a medical practice sacks a nurse or doctor for serious misconduct (in the first case the practice is responsible, but it can be referred to the Nursing Council or Royal College of General Practitioners), the Minister of Transport is not responsible for whether Aviation Security sack Joe Security for failing to direct someone displaying COVID19 symptoms to step aside, whilst appropriate arrangements are made.

So, whilst you are understandably frustrated if someone goes into the community with COVID19, it is not necessarily the Government to blame. They are reliant on everyone under them being honest about what is going on, including whether they are appropriately resourced, trained, staffed and so forth, but it is responsibility of the agencies tasked with the border work to DO the border work.

 

Soaring road toll something New Zealanders need to own


At the weekend I read of another fatal crash. This one killed 8 people, including a couple that were supposed to be getting married in May. Coming just a few weeks after a Chinese family in a van were involved in an accident near Tekapo on a gravel road that killed five and injured another three, and with a single week long period in which 26 people were killed, it really is time to confront a sobering problem.

There are only so many excuses we can continue to make for our sky rocketing road toll. And it frustrates me to no end the amount of excuse making that goes on.

How about looking at the many people who do not drive with their lights on when it is raining? Why do so many people go through the red light at the intersection? Or let themselves be found on the wrong side of the road when going around tight bends – the speed signs as one approaches tight bends are there for a reason: its the safest speed it is designed for and if you find yourself on the other side the truck coming around the corner will not be able to stop in time.

It is time to own the fact that we are not great drivers my fellow Kiwi’s. It is time to accept that not all of those pesky tourists who come in from China and elsewhere, who we moan about not knowing the rules are no worse in many respects than us. In many cases, the tourists are politer.

Even if we took the steps that I recommend and made all tourists coming off long haul flights wait twelve hours to get their cars; even if we made them sit a theory test before they were allowed to hire a rental car, it does not change some very sobering facts. It does not change the fact that we do not require for example that all of our new imports have their lights set to turn on when the driver starts the engine – they do in Canada. Nor are our judges consistent in sentencing convicted offenders. This is illustrated by there being at least one offender in New Zealand who has been convicted of drunk driving at least 12 times and was still driving when he last appeared before a judge.

We as New Zealanders have the power to change all of this. We have the power to

  • demand stiffer sentencing;
  • demand that all cars come preset to have their headlights come on when the engine is started
  • Make all licenced drivers get vehicle insurance
  • Make fleeing police an instantly jail worthy offence
  • Require alcohol locks permanently for anyone who drinks, drives and causes death and/or injury as a result of that drunk driving

And there are other things we can do. Such as stop the blame game with tourists, who despite their numbers increasing by 30% in the 10 years to 2014 are involved or cause a declining percentage of crashes involving death and/or injury.

It is our road toll in our country. Lets stop the blame game and own it.

Especially as wild weather, which is another thing our drivers are not good at adapting to, moves up the country. Driving home from work today I went up State Highway 1 briefly and a road that normally has cars doing 80km/h was down to 65-70km/h because of the wind driven rain and crap visibility. Yet I still saw people with no lights on; people driving too fast.

And we wonder why our road toll is so bad.

New Zealand transport policy still favours roads


Five days a week I drive 6km from my home to my work near Christchurch Airport. Each time I approach the Harewood Road State Highway 1 intersection I am reminded what a road loving nation we are. And two facts about New Zealand transport are undeniable:

  • There are too many cars on the roads with only one person driving them.
  • Too much freight goes by truck.

However getting people to get out of their cars and take more appropriate transport is proving difficult. For example car pooling is something that can only be done at community level. Because of that it might only be successful at community level and organized on social networking sites like Neighbourly.

In Christchurch the geography of the city, even post earthquake supports buses, and a crude bike wheel (ring and spoke) model would be best. A central exchange like the one that currently exists should have an inner bus ring (currently lacking), and an outer ring (currently serviced by the Orbiter bus which runs at 10 minute intervals during daylight hours. Spokes spaced at regularly intervals around the compass connect the ring routes. The Christchurch model is trying to reconcile with the post earthquake changes to the bus network.

What might work in Christchurch I accept will not work everywhere. This is why Wellington has a regular commuter train service out to Porirua, Upper and Lower Hutt, as well as Waikanae, and its inner suburbs. But whilst Wellington is lucky enough to have a good railway network its bus services seem to be in need of an overhaul, if the political debate in the lead up to the 2019 local government elections are anything to go by.

Trucking is an obvious mode of transport on New Zealand roads. The rental car company I work for knows this well as we often have long haul drivers coming in to pick or drop off cars. But also there are New Zealand roads where trucks simply should not be, because those roads immediate physical environment does not and will not in the future permit their safe transit – the roads around Kaikoura are one such example. And this is where I think the merchant marine might be useful. For non-urgent freight that simply does not need to be on the road, send it by ship might be more cost efficient. This model might also enable a ferry network to operate along the South Island’s east coast – a regular ferry from Lyttelton to Wellington did indeed used to operate.

In those same nine years, there was an opportunity to tighten up the road code and safety regime for buses. It was not taken and now we are having cowboy companies driving dungers or overseas companies with no knowledge or experience of our roads and road code. Fixing these will help to give people confidence in the bus networks again.

National M.P. for Rangitata Andrew Falloon in a sponsored Facebook advert was promoting a four lane highway from Christchurch to Ashburton. When I challenged him, he pointed out that National had subsidized Kiwi Rail by $250 million per annum. What Mr Falloon did not say was that National chose to back diesel locomotives from China instead of working with Hillside workshops in Dunedin and others who might have been able to design locomotives for New Zealand conditions. I had also in the past heard of drivers on lines in the North Island being concerned that the level crossing alarms were not working properly and having to approach level crossings on sections of the track where the speed limit was much higher than what they were doing. Mr Falloon might have to have a look at the state of the railways post-National.

The Leader of the National Party, Simon Bridges is claiming that National is environmentally responsible, yet he is promising to undo environmentally responsible things other parties have done. For example on one hand, yes, the Government has not properly thought through the oil and gas announcement. But here would have been a great opportunity for National to rip the rug from underneath them by announcing a nationwide biofuel programme that would:

  1. Create jobs in a sector not really understood
  2. Justify a suitably bigger investment in research to understand whether the N.Z. vehicle fleet is ready
  3. Show some environmental credentials by reducing the carbon emissions

The resistance to biofuels probably does not come from politicians so much as from petroleum companies, upset that their business model is no longer fit for purpose and trying desperately to stave off anything that end it. If a suitable blend can be developed the waste stream in Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland might be able to sustain it.

I am however waiting, like much of New Zealand for substantive policy announcements on these issues by the Minister for Transport Phil Twyford. No timetable has been set, and maybe in that time, tired of a lack of direction New Zealanders might realize we need to own the problem.

Our geriatric vehicle fleet is costing New Zealand


In March the Ministry of Transport released its Annual Vehicle Fleet statistics for the 2017 year.

The size of the fleet has increased from 3,977,966 light vehicles in 2016 to 4,154,897 in 2017. As with previous years the average age remains stubbornly high at 14 years. The number of electric vehicles that have been registered has increased significantly from 940 to 2, but still makes only a tiny fraction of our total light vehicle fleet.

My parents have two vehicles. One is a 2007 Hyundai Getz, which has done 102,000 kilometres. They purchased it in 2010 with about 35,000 kilometres on the odometer. The Toyota Surf that was purchased in 2003 is even older, having come off the vehicle line in 1995. It has done 340,000 kilometres and would probably be good for another 100,000 kilometres.

The Hyundai Getz is 11 years old and below the national average. My parents are by no means the only ones with such old vehicles. My fathers brother owns a Toyota Surf as well that might even older and quite likely with as many kilometres on it. And the reasons for holding on to such old vehicles for so long is simple: reliable, do everything the owners want and well maintained they can last a long time.

Ford Falcons, Holden Commodore’s, Subaru Legacy’s, Toyota Surfs, RAV4’s, Corolla’s along with various Honda’s, Mazda’s, Suzuki’s all contribute substantially to the aging fleet.

Other factors are at play too, which the Government and New Zealand Transport Authority need to recognize. Many New Zealanders cannot afford newer vehicles and a lot of newer models have gone for style over substance, have features such as phones and fancy entertainment features that are simply not considered to be necessary.

There are mounting problems with the vehicle fleet though. Among the problems are:

  1. As they age, vehicles become more expensive to fix which may be put down to a shortage of parts for particular types
  2. As an older vehicle ages it becomes more dangerous – newer ones for ease of obtaining new parts, having accepted safety measures and ratings pose less of a risk to other road users
  3. New Zealand has climate change obligations to meet and reducing vehicle emissions will be a priority for this Government
  4. New Zealanders incomes have been largely static for a long time and unless they move, new vehicles entering the market will go through several owners before they look near affordable to lower and middle income brackets
  5. Were there to be a significant overhaul of the available product in the fuel supply market, newer types and biofuels might not be usable in older vehicles

Vested interests such in the motoring industry and political influences mean that significant resistance may be expected if a comprehensive attempt is made to update our aging light vehicle fleet. However the social and economic costs of doing so might be even higher.

Lowering speed limit might not save lives


Yesterday, the Government acknowledged it was looking at lowering the speed limit to 70km/h on some roads. Whilst delighting road safety campaigners, the usual critics have sprung up. Some of their points are valid, but some are simply attacking a Government with an apparently bold plan for N.Z. transport.

There are a range of reasons why lowering the speed limit will not save lives:

  1. A lot of crashes happen as a result of bad decisions – such as turning in front of an on coming car; failing to give way; running red lights
  2. Crashes also happen because people too often do not drive to the conditions and ignore the rules set down in the road code – a person is supposed to be 2 seconds driving time behind the person in front, which becomes 4 seconds in foggy or wet conditions; fail to use lights appropriately in dark, or otherwise poor visibility
  3. Still too many people electing to drive drunk despite common public awareness of the problem and the strong negative reaction to anyone being caught drunk – how many of you have had to stop a person from driving drunk?
  4. Driver attitudes are a major concern – a failure to wear seatbelts; drivers running from cops; letting minors or unlicenced people behind the wheel – and need to change

As a mate at the pub said awhile back, “you cannot fix stupid, Rob”. It was not a reference to the road toll, but people have to accept responsibility for a significant portion of the crashes that happen. Some, such as an elderly driver perhaps backing into someones fence will be purely accidental – they would not have meant to do it and might well have confused the gears or hit the accelerator instead of the brake.

Where in the preceding four reasons did I mention the word “speed”, or the phrases “driving too fast” and “speed limit”?

I deliberately do no mention speed in the reasons, because although it is definitely an issue and one that contributes its share to the road toll, it is a well publicized one. Regular campaigns by the Police aimed at slowing people down feature graphic ads. Speed cameras catch a lot of people, but it is meaningless unless the payment of the fines is better enforced than it currently is.

But do they actually save lives or are they a revenue making gimmick for an underfunded Police force? I believe there is a bit of both. I also believe though that if the Police have a crack down, it should not be announced – it defeats the purpose and the offenders that they want to catch in the act, behave well for the duration and then go back to their normal routines as soon as it is over.

Perhaps there is merit in reducing speed limits on semi rural road, but this will only work if the limit is rigorously enforced. It will only work if human attitudes change. Whilst attitudes remain what they are, a lower death toll will remain being something to dream about.