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.

Labour Government releases transport spending priorities


Yesterday marked a significant step forward for New Zealand’s economy and transport. After years being campaigned for by the Greens, Minister of Transport Julie Anne Genter announced that the Government was ready to release a draft Government Policy Statement on transport.

The key highlights of this major announcement are:

  • $11.7 billion for public transport
  • $1.1 billion for pedestrian and cycling infrastructure
  • $6.1 billion for regional and local roads

This is a great start to addressing the waylaid priorities of New Zealand’s transport needs. I look forward to the opportunity in the next few weeks to lay down more formal thoughts in a submission to the draft Government Policy Statement that has been released by Ms Genter, and her New Zealand and Labour colleagues Shane Jones and Phil Twyford.

For years I have been pushing for a much bigger investment in railways, the merchant marine and to a bit lesser extent, public transport. Many of the points on which I campaigned look like they will be addressed in this.

There is however one significant question. For all the great announcements that come out of this draft Government Policy Statement release, I have one niggling question:

What sort of investment is going to happen around merchant marine? We are a maritime nation. It is saying something that one of the major modes of transport is not being given the due investment that is needed to reduece congestion on our roads and help take some of the pressure off the easter South Island where quake damage is still being fixed.

No one should be surprised that there is a fuel tax coming. Especially seeing as the Government did not make specific tax announcements at the election, where people were expecting something to happen. Not surprisingly, the right are out in force talking about how no one can afford the proposed petrol tax. This is the same right that spent $12 billion of N.Z. taxpayer money funding “Roads of National Significance”, which were in several cases completely meaningless¬† and more about appeasing the trucking and private users lobby.

 

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.

National’s $10.5 billion transport bungle


Yesterday, Prime MInister Bill English announced a major new road funding programme that would cost N.Z.$10.5 billion. It involves a series of projects throughout the North Island and upper South Island that would improve road capacity and ease congestion.

But when we look objectively at them, are they all needed and are there not other transport projects more deserving of the funding? Are there not planning issues that arise with an obsession with the car?

My point is simple. Like the roads built in the $12 billion plan unveiled in 2011, National once again has its priorities wrong. They were called Roads of National Significance (R.o.N.S.), and were intended to enable freer flowing traffic in the areas of highest traffic growth, such as between Auckland and Whangarei, Hamilton and Auckland and in the South Island around Christchurch.

More motorways simply because there is more demand is not the whole answer or the only answer. More motorways simply for those reasons have flow environmental and planning issues, in that suburban sprawl tends to follow suit, which poses its own – entirely different and not relevant to this article – set of challenges.

In Christchurch road transport seems to have taken priority during the rebuild with State Highway 1 being upgraded to a dual carriage way from Main South Road to Belfast. A dual carriageway diversion that bypasses Belfast completely is also underway and will pick up traffic from the north end of Johns Road.

New Zealand is about 15 years behind European countries and also large American cities where city planners have put greater emphasis on railways and buses, land use planning that encourages these modes of transport and so forth. This is why my view of transport is that we need to get trucks off roads that the largest of them were simply not meant to be on in the first place. Their cargo can be just as well distributed by rail, the merchant marine or by aircraft. This is why we need to stop looking at these modes of transport in a piece meal fashion, that does not seek to integrate them.

Yes we have a problem in the South Island with quake damaged road and railway lines. However, they are being fixed and will soon be able to have slow freight trains running the length of the Main Trunk Line from Christchurch to Picton. If transport planners really put some thought into it, how about resuming the overnight ferry from Christchurch to Wellington?

This is a bungle. We simply do not need some of these roading projects and others should be scaled back as if rail were given the same opportunities as roading, it could take much of the heat out of our congestion. National are throwing money around funding public transport projects as a desperate attempt to draw some of the votes from Labour. But their lack of cohesion, focus on roads and outright ignorance of some transport modes shows where their real priorities lie.

Report on options for Manawatu Gorge route ignored


For as long as Manawatu Gorge has had transport links through it, they have been subject to slips. Some of them have been cleared in a matter of days. Some have taken several weeks.

With each slip business has been lost by the towns at either end of the gorge. People’s livelihoods have been disrupted, with locals and tourists alike forced to take detours.

A few weeks ago another slip came down. The gorge had not been long reopened after several previous slips. This time it looks like the disruption might be terminal, the patience of the communities having run out and the issue now a political football in election year.

In 2012 after a particularly severe slip event the New Zealand Transport Authority commissioned a report into alternative transport routes in the Manawatu Gorge. There were four options being suggested:

  1. A direct route that is the shortest and involves building a 5.9 kilometre long straight bypass – COST: $309 million
  2. Bridging to provide a straight a carriageway in parts of the gorge – COST: $415 million
  3. Overhaul what is commonly known as the long route, which is about 10 kilometres long and currently carrying most of the traffic, but which is not really suited for the volume of traffic it is carrying – COST: $120 million
  4. A tunnel, which would be New Zealand’s longest road tunnel and start and end about the same place as the direct route – COST: $1.8 billion

The geological structures and strata that any overhaul would have to be worked on is tricky. Large faults including, but not limited to, the Wellington Fault are nearby. The strata is largely sedimentary in nature and likely uplifted by seismic activity on the nearby faults. Old landslide zones abound along the slopes of the gorge

The report was ignored. It was shelved because despite the frequency of slips closing the gorge, it was not considered to be a priority.

Now, finally, with a slip closing the gorge blocking the road indefinitely, the Government has finally admitted there is a problem. But how do we know that this is not simply a case of electioneering in election year to counter resurgent opposition parties?