Rus­sian roulette in the South

Otago Daily Times - - EDITORIAL -

AN­OTHER win­ter, an­other clus­ter of crashes on Otago’s roads.

It’s only June and al­ready sev­eral car crashes have come from the macabre alchemy of ice and poor roads. Each ac­ci­dent is a catas­tro­phe — for the peo­ple in­volved, the emer­gency ser­vices at­tend­ing and the wider fam­i­lies and friends af­fected.

Each ac­ci­dent also takes money from the econ­omy — the loss of pro­duc­tiv­ity as peo­ple re­cover, or not, from their in­juries; the cost of pub­lic health­care; the cost of emer­gency ser­vices.

Each ac­ci­dent means re­place­ment cars or parts are needed — none of which are pro­duced in New Zealand. Roads, bol­lards, signs or sid­ings have to be re­paired or re­placed.

More sig­nif­i­cant of course is the po­ten­tial, and often re­alised, loss of life. We are lucky enough to live in a coun­try which val­ues life above all else. Vir­tu­ally all of our gov­ern­ment spend­ing is di­rected to­wards pro­long­ing, im­prov­ing and adding com­fort, safety and op­por­tu­nity to life.

Yet, life can be ex­tin­guished in an in­stant when a rea­son­able ve­hi­cle, driven in a rea­son­able man­ner by a rea­son­able per­son, hits ice on bad roads. This would be eas­ier to tol­er­ate if the roads in ques­tion were lit­tle known and sel­dom­trav­elled by­ways. Tragic, pre­ventable, but grudg­ingly ac­cepted as a com­pro­mise be­tween life and cost.

But on ma­jor state high­ways? How is it pos­si­ble in 2018 that high­ways be­tween cen­tres as large, thriv­ing and valu­able to the coun­try as Queen­stown and Dunedin are so un­suit­able that, with a lit­tle cold weather and a spot of mois­ture, they be­come long black rib­bons of Rus­sian roulette?

How long can this re­gion al­low crash af­ter crash due to poor con­di­tions be­fore a col­lec­tive thump­ing of fist on table de­mands some­thing bet­ter?

There are many coun­tries with sim­i­lar ve­hi­cle fleets be­ing used in worse weather than those of Otago and South­land. Are their state high­ways as twist­ing, of­f­cam­ber, in­di­rect, nar­row and deadly as the tar­sealed wagon trails used in the South? Swe­den’s long, win­try, but high­qual­ity and vir­tu­ally en­tirely me­dian­sep­a­rated E4 high­way, of­fers a sober­ing com­par­i­son.

In­fra­struc­ture is a key re­spon­si­bil­ity of gov­ern­ment. A col­lec­tive gath­er­ing of money fol­lowed by con­certed, tar­geted, clever spend­ing on the in­fra­struc­ture is needed to im­prove a na­tion.

Hav­ing spent a for­tune al­ready on other re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of gov­ern­ment — rais­ing, ed­u­cat­ing, train­ing and sup­port­ing New Zealan­ders — it seems the most gross of ne­glects to then let them perish each win­ter on state high­ways fit for lit­tle more than B­road sta­tus in most de­vel­oped coun­tries.

But there’s lit­tle call from this re­gion for change. No de­mand­ing of some­thing bet­ter. Driv­ers know they must drive to the con­di­tions, es­pe­cially those in the deep South who prac­tise per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity as a ne­ces­sity.

Per­haps peo­ple fear the pop­u­la­tion is too low to war­rant fur­ther in­vest­ment. Not enough de­mand. Too few driv­ers. Not enough money.

That isn’t true. Our re­gion’s high­ways are busy. A clear run on State High­way 8 is al­most un­think­able in 2018. It is busy with tourists, trucks, trades­men and lo­cals, fer­ry­ing them­selves be­tween Otago’s two ma­jor cen­tres and the myr­iad rapid­ly­grow­ing set­tle­ments be­tween.

Since 2015, a $455 mil­lion, 110kmh, four­lane 21km mo­tor­way has con­nected Tau­ranga with Paen­garoa. From there driv­ers carry on to Ro­torua in the south or Whakatane in the east. While there is noth­ing wrong with that, Paen­garoa is never go­ing to com­pete with Spaghetti Junc­tion for traf­fic move­ments.

While Otago’s dis­tances and to­pog­ra­phy bring dif­fer­ent chal­lenges, it is not the only re­gion in the world with such ter­rain, such a cli­mate and such a pop­u­la­tion.

At the very least, the peo­ple of the South, the freight com­pa­nies, the trades­men and the tourists all at present rolling the bar­rel of these roads of Rus­sian roulette de­serve a con­ver­sa­tion.

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