Tony Alexander: Napier-Taupō Rd’s near-perfect year now an awkward reality for Waka Kotahi


Three hundred and nineteen. That’s not a number just pulled out of a hat but the number of people that died on New Zealand’s roads in 2021.

Like others, I don’t like calling it a toll. A toll is something you pay for to use something and roads should not be costing lives.

Within the last couple of days, the Automobile Association (AA) has come out
publicly and stated that they want to see “more action to improve road safety”,
including upgrading high-risk roads with barriers, spending more on maintenance,
improving road surfaces and the hot topic of the month, lowering speed limits.

I think the lowering of speed limit argument is starting to wear thin for a lot of
professionals, including serving police officers.

State Highway 5, the Napier-Taupō road, has been in the news lately, with Waka
Kotahi NZTA announcing it will lower the speed limit to 80km/h from Eskdale to Waipunga, a distance of a little over 80km.

Their argument is that by lowering the limit, it will make the road safer to fall in line with their Vision Zero concept.

But wait – this is a state highway that despite remaining at 100km/h for the past year, hasn’t had a fatal crash on it since October 2020 – and that was a crash that didn’t involve speed.

This zero-fatality milestone can be put down directly to effective road policing utilising
the Stay Alive on 5 campaign initiated by Constable Steve Knox of the Hawke’s
Bay district road policing unit.

Waka Kotahi also contributed by placing “Slow down” electronic signs on
certain parts of the road where crashes occurred regularly and educational signage
along the 123km route.

As a professional driver, road safety advocate and SH5 user, I’m pleased with the work that has been completed during the 2021 season.

But there is more that could be done, including straightening corners, widening
shoulders and more enforcement.

At the moment, despite Waka Kotahi coming out and saying it is looking at spending $100 million on the road, only band-aid repairs and improvements are being carried out.

Waka Kotahi has seemingly achieved its Vision Zero objective on SH5.

If it persists in lowering speed limits, it’s my opinion this will undo the good work already done as people will get frustrated, take more risks and crash anyway.

We professional drivers see it every day as it is.

I run a Facebook page called “SH5 Issues”, which now has over 4700 members.

A poll has been conducted on the page with the support of Hastings District and Regional councils over the Christmas break, asking members if they supported or opposed the lowering of the limit.

At the time of writing, 2600 people oppose, with only 80 supporting.

It is evident to me it’s not a popular decision.

Yes, speed can be a factor in crashes but the root cause is often the driver, whether it be fatigue, bad driving, not driving to the conditions, vehicle conditions, or even a medical event.

I get that speed can often be the factor in whether someone gets to go home or not, but a death can still occur even at 80km/h if someone isn’t wearing a seatbelt.

The disestablishment of 111 traffic positions throughout New Zealand, including the Hawke’s Bay Highway patrol, is one of the major problems.

Each year, NZ Police are given a number of hours that they must carry out on certain road policing and they have been failing miserably in completing those hours.

I believe wholeheartedly that the diminished presence on the road by Police has a detrimental flow-down effect where people don’t see them and take bigger risks which in turn, cause more deaths.

Waka Kotahi, police and indeed the Government need to take a long, hard look at
their strategies because the ones that they are employing are not working.

Multiple areas that have speed reductions implemented are still getting fatals almost weekly.

The speed reductions simply do not work. Better policing, better driver education
and better, safer roads will.

• Tony Alexander is a road safety advocate based in Napier. He qualified as a crash analyst in 1995, is currently a professional driver and runs a Facebook group that aims to identify issues on State Highway 5.

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