Road toll is a matter of common sense

There is a section of State Highway 1 between Hamilton and Auckland which looks quite ordinary. Well travelled, just like the rest of New Zealand’s longest road, yet a complete and horrible mystery to locals, the emergency services and transport planners alike. This section of road passes through rural areas and small towns such as Mercer, Huntly and Ngaruawahia and is the deadliest stretch of road in the country.

As a kid trying to pass time on the drive from Taupo to Auckland during one holiday, I was looking out the window and started counting white crosses. Each one represents a life lost. When I did this in the 1990’s, the number was already quite depressing then – I counted at least 20. Some of them them were in groups. Others were in clusters. Some were well looked after, with photographs and flowers and others were barely visible. Someone’s mother or son, father or daughter….

As I think about them whilst typing this I wonder how it is after years of steady progress, the toll is suddenly running in reverse. Why are safety campaigns, law enforcement and social messages no longer working? Why do people not seem to be heeding the warnings?

Recently – about six weeks ago – I and a few others stopped a drunk from becoming a drunk driver. He was kicked out from a bar I was at. A few others I knew had been trying to talk him out of driving. Then he simply got up and staggered to his truck and tried to start the ignition. I took the key off him whilst another stood in front of his truck to stop him moving. I wondered at the time how often at bars around the country this sort of incident plays out. Sadly the answer is probably too frequently.

Speeding on roads that are clearly not designed for speed defies common sense. But we do it. Running red lights, failing to give way, not indicating are all things that happen far too frequently. Safety advocates campaign for New measures. The police and other emergency services beg for restraint and occasionally politicians vow action. But nothing happens and perhaps there is a good reason for it.

Perhaps, just perhaps it is because this surge in the road toll is caused a loss of common sense. Perhaps if people did not run those red lights, remembered to indicate and gave way instead of sailing through the toll might be lower. Perhaps less of those crosses I gave up counting would exist on the roadside. Perhaps the volunteer fire fighter at a family barbecue might not have his Christmas Day interrupted because a head on collision has taken two lives.

The time has come to stop blaming non New Zealanders for our own crap driving. Until we take responsibility and make the matching steps in exercising that responsibility, the road toll will continue to be a black stain on New Zealand. We can have the best roads, the best road code and the best driving tests, but if a person gets through all of that and decides they want to be a callous numpty and kill someone, they’ll find a way of doing that.

Is that too much common sense to ask for?

I think not.

Milford Sound: Getting there is half the experience

This article is inspired by a sad story a few days ago of a crash that claimed two lives on the Milford road to perhaps the most stunning part of New Zealand’s conservation estate. It is inspired by the fact that

Thousands of people do it every year. My family have done it twice in 1991 and 1999. Both times we made it a two day exercise, driving from my Uncle’s farm in Waikaka to Te Anau Downs on the first day and then to Milford and back to the farm on the second day. Without doubt when it comes to scenery, the Milford road is the most fantastic drive in New Zealand.

But it is long. From Te Anau to Milford Sound is 204 kilometres one way. From Queenstown to Milford Sound, it is nearly 420 kilometres. The road is windy, has steep drop offs and is treacherous in rain or. In winter it can be closed for days by the avalanche risk and black ice on shaded corners have sent many a car into a spin.

Any one who has taken the time to enjoy the scenery along the way – to look at the fantastic waterfalls, the stunning alpine landscape, and verdant rainforest – will agree that the scenery along the way is breath taking.

Oh sure you might be trying to cram as much into your compressed holiday itinerary as you can. Sure you might not be coming back for awhile, but why the inane rush to drive Queenstown to Milford Sound AND back in a single day? Aside from being an exceptionally long drive totalling nearly 840 kilometres (525 miles), you completely miss the said stunning scenery. And you probably give stuff all time in Milford Sound, the place you spent so much effort getting to in the first place.

But, I have a solution and it is not a daft one by any means. Build a motel or other accommodation place just outside the National Park boundary. It is still about 100 kilometres from there to Milford Sound, but it does two things

  • Enable more time in Milford Sound, which was the whole reason for making the trip in the first place
  • give the visitor more time to enjoy said stunning scenery and marvel at what a fantastic place Fiordland National Park is

An assorted mix of accommodation would be necessary to cater for the various groups. Tour buses could use it as a pick up/drop off point and it might be possible to run smaller groups from the lodgings up to Milford Sound on minibuses. Giving tourists a place that they can be picked up from nearer to Milford Sound means they could leave their cars at the accommodation and not have to risk a road whose conditions they might not comprehend.

And if saves any lives by giving fatigued drivers somewhere to park up, all the better.


The case for making life jackets mandatory on boats

A week has passed since a charter boat sank at the entrance to Kaipara Harbour in bad weather. In that time many people have come forward and commented about the accident, about the skipper and about the boaties who were on board. All well and good, but one glaring question has been ignored.

The list of maritime tragedies that could have been avoided if boats going to sea had carried the proper safety equipment is long. Following each of them people have renewed calls for life jackets to be made compulsory. Following the renewed calls each time, nothing has happened. How many more people are going to die before the maritime equivalent of wearing a seat belt in a car becomes compulsory?

Bill McNatty, a 68 year old charter boat operator was trying to cross the Kaipara Bar, a risky proposition on the best of days, when his boat struck trouble. The weather was bad and other boaties had decided to stay ashore that day because of deteriorating conditions. There were 11 people on board, of whom seven would die, three would survive and one is still missing – most probably drowned.

Locals say that Mr McNatty was a very good skipper who took good care of his boat. Perhaps he did, but unfortunately it does not change the fact that not all of the people aboard The Francie had life jackets on. Aside from being in breach of Maritime New Zealand regulations regarding them, more than anything else, life jackets could have prevented most if not all of the deaths caused by the fatal crossing of the Kaipara Bar.

If the boat skipper was competent like the Kaipara locals say he was, then why was he rescued in a prior incident to the fatal accident of 27 November 2016? And why did another boatie raise issues with the Harbour Master about the competence of Mr McNatty?

Politicians seem reluctant to act to reduce the unnecessarily high rate of boating accidents that occur in New Zealand waters. It is ironic that while much effort goes into railway and road safety, boating safety seems to be a low priority despite New Zealanders love of both salt and fresh water being well known.

Maritime New Zealand recommends the following equipment for boaties:

Make sure you have the following items on board:

  • Boat hook and throwing line
  • Warm clothing
  • First aid kit
  • Navigation equipment
  • Bailing system
  • Rope
  • Waterproof torch
  • Alternative power (a spare outboard, oars or paddles).

Put together a floating ‘grab bag’ that contains all the emergency gear you would need should you need to abandon your boat. The bag should contain:

  • ways of calling for help, i.e. emergency distress beacon, flares or water-proof VHF radio
  • lifejackets

Sometime from now there may be a memorial to the tragedy on the Kaipara Harbour bar of November 2016. If so, hopefully it will be in full view of any boaties trying to cross it, to remind them that there can be a dreadful price to pay for getting it wrong.

Christchurch-Picton portion of S.H. 1 in need of overhaul

After years of the obvious risks to big trucks being demonstrated by crash after crash, New Zealand Transport Authority has finally admitted that there is a need to overhaul the section of State Highway 1 between Christchurch and Picton. With the narrow, tight corners of the coastal stretch from the Conway to the Kowhai Rivers proving too much of an obstacle, the time is long overdue to overhaul this stretch of New Zealand’s main road.

So, as we digest an announcement that should have been made years ago, what are the potential options for mitigating the problem?

The first option is the obvious one as New Zealand Transport Authority suggests. That is upgrade State Highway One. There is no doubt that if trucks are to continue using this particular segment of road that there needs to be significant remedial work done.

There is a second option that negates the tricky stretch between the aforementioned rivers. That is to go inland on State Highway 7 through the less treacherous Weka Pass, via Rotherham come out just south of Kaikoura. This route does not have as heavy traffic, lacks the numerous short one lane tunnels that pepper the coastal route and avoids the steep drop at many of the tight corners into the Pacific Ocean. This would be advantageous for inland Canterbury towns which would have a small economic boom from the trucks passing through and if truck stops are needed, it would be easier to build them there than on a coastal strip that is only tens of metres wide or less in some places.

A third option is even better. New Zealand Transport Authority is supposed to work with all forms of transport in New Zealand – road, railway, and the merchant marine. Given many of the crashes are involving large trucks that are simply not suited to navigating that stretch of road, why not put it on rail? One good size freight train can take many times the volume of a single truck. If it is going to the North Island, it can be put on railway freight ferry at Picton and cross Cook Strait in 3.5 hours.

And then there is our grossly under utilized merchant marine. Whilst the merchant marine is certainly the slowest option, for non-urgent and large bulk consignments that do not need to stop at a railway yard and get shunted onto a ferry or wait in a parking area in Wellington or Picton, why not send it from Lyttelton?

The reasons for deliberately exploring these other options are numerous. The primary one is simply getting the most out of our transport networks through the various modes of transport. Another one is reducing our environmental footprint by reducing carbon emissions. And a third would be reducing the risk of a major toxic other spill into a sensitive environment which could impact on both sea life and human health. With these considered, it is definitely time to act.


Police losing war on bad driving

There is a strip of State Highway One between Hamilton and Auckland with a number of white crosses on the side of the road. Each cross represents someone who died in a road accident. The number of crosses on that stretch is in the dozens. Every time I go up that stretch of road I feel depressed at the number of lives lost and the lives turned upside down. But it also makes me wonder whether the police focus as they strive to reduce the death toll is on the right things.

For the last two decades the death toll has been in decline, down from nearly 900 per annum in 1972, with 294 people dying in 2014. However with still two weeks left in 2015, the death toll has exceeded 300 and in the last week alone there was a period where seven people died in a 48 hour period. And as the families of the dead mourn the loss of their loved ones, perhaps it is time to look at how the police war on bad driving is going and whether it needs to be refocussed.

Certainly there are some good things happening. In all honesty I think there is definitely a case for having a focus on drunk/drug driving, with advertisements playing during peak time television viewing showing people how to identify a driver on drugs. I applaud the Police for trying tackle the drug driving aspect in the last two years. There have been some horrible accidents caused by people who were on drugs and/or alcohol which grossly impaired their judgement and innocent people paid for their lives  as a result.

A combination of better roads, better policing and legislative changes have helped reduce the death toll. However whilst speed, alcohol and fatigue are major drivers of crashes involving injuries and fatalities, what about the lesser, more common crashes? How many can be attributed to any one or more of the following:

  • Inattention
  • Failure to follow road code signage
  • Inexperience
  • Non roadworthy vehicles
  • Medical issues
  • Elderly

All of those who drive regularly have their share of stories about incidents involving people with one or more of these problems. How much could a bigger focus on these issues help the overall picture and change the impression that the Police are focussing too heavily on drunk driving and speed? Most importantly how many 111 calls would a greater emphasis on these things prevent?

I ask because a student I went to intermediate school with was on life support for two days before it was turned off after being struck by a car whose driver was changing the C.D. when she went around  a bend at speed.  I ask because I am quite confident that one of these days given the behaviour of people in Christchurch at intersections that I am going to be having to pull up in a rush and dial 111 – especially when sometimes 2-3 cars will go through an intersection after their light has gone red.

I ask, because I am concerned that whilst the focus remains so heavily on alcohol and speed, this will be as good as the death toll gets and that it might even start creeping back up.