Editorial: It's not my fault!

By Peter Jackson

Peter Jackson
Peter Jackson

The mantra 'It's not my fault!' has a lot to answer for.

Truth is, many undesirable outcomes in life, whether it be poor educational outcomes, poverty, unemployment, drowning, the road toll, are indeed the fault of the 'victim'.

These outcomes are never going to go away, human nature being what it is, but it is unhelpful to believe that bad things are invariably acts of God and there is nothing we can do to change them.

"The fact that long stretches of road, including the state highways, offer few if any chances to overtake slower traffic might be frustrating, but does not excuse risky behaviour that sometimes ends in death."

It is even less helpful when this excuse is reinforced by so-called experts. Insisting that our fate is out of our hands simply encourages people to behave in ways that increase the potential for disaster manyfold.

The road toll is a very good example of that. We hear, repeatedly, that road design is a significant factor in many deaths. Not all.

We know, and most people surely accept, that those who drive while sleepy, drunk or drugged, increase their potential to become a statistic. The fact that people continue to drive when they shouldn't is typical human behaviour, and the all but universal belief that we will get away with it.

If every driver obeyed the law in every instance the road toll would be close to zero, but that isn't going to happen. It would help, however, if we focused much more on what we are doing to increase our chances of injury or death rather than looking for someone else to blame.

It is hardly a state secret that Northland's roads aren't the best in the country. Even the state highways are dodgy in places, although there are plenty of warning signs so a damaged or uneven surface shouldn't take any driver by surprise.

The fact that long stretches of road, including the state highways, offer few if any chances to overtake slower traffic might be frustrating, but does not excuse risky behaviour that sometimes ends in death.

The NZTA and the territorial authorities could certainly improve some of the region's roads, if they could afford to, which, at least as far as the councils are concerned, they patently cannot. But the condition of the roads doesn't even begin to explain this year's road toll, or any other year's.

At the time of writing 34 people had died on Northland's roads since January 1. Twenty of those lives were lost in the Far North, a hugely disproportionate toll in terms of our share of the country's population, vehicles and kilometres travelled. Four of those who have died this year were pedestrians.

Were any of those deaths the result of poor road design and/or maintenance? Without examining every crash in detail it is probably safe to say the answer is no. People die because they, or someone else, make a poor decision. Perhaps we should be consoling ourselves with the fact that only a minute proportion of those poor decisions end in disaster.

Just how some people push their luck — and that of everyone they encounter on the road — was illustrated by the Northern Advocate last week, in a story quoting Northland's senior traffic officer, Inspector Wayne Ewers, after an extraordinary journey he made from just north of Kerikeri to Whangarei. His first encounter of note was with a Subaru that popped over the brow of the hill on to the Pakaraka Straights at 123km/h. Mr Ewers was unable to turn and chase the car safely, so that driver got away.

Obviously he or she reached their destination without killing themselves or anyone else.
He then met a modified four-wheel-drive with a raised chassis travelling down the Waiomio Hill at 116km/h. The front seat passenger was unrestrained. The 19-year-old driver was ticketed and given advice as to how he could "advance" his licence.

The 18-year-old passenger was ticketed for not wearing a seat belt, and all four teenagers, who had been at a family funeral, were given some prevention messages.
As Mr Ewers crested the Towai Hill he clocked a Nissan Skyline passing other vehicles at 143km/h.

Another 19-year-old learner driver was behind the wheel. He said he had driven from Kaitaia to Papakura that morning to get his girlfriend and was on his way home. He was tired and "just wanted to get there".

His licence was suspended for 28 days and he copped 35 demerit points, which, added to the 85 he already had, meant he would lose his licence for three months.

Just north of Hikurangi he came across a vehicle that had already been stopped by another officer. The driver had been travelling at 151km/h, and was under the influence of alcohol, albeit not sufficiently to be charged.

As Mr Ewers resumed his journey, the first vehicle he encountered was clocked at 135km/h. The 44-year-old female driver, who produced a licence which included a zero alcohol provision, subsequently recorded 636 micrograms of alcohol per litre of breath, two and a half times the legal limit.

She reckoned she had had a couple of gins.

It is far from difficult to imagine any of those drivers, and in one case three passengers, dying before they go to where they were going. If they had there would have been no basis whatsoever for blaming State Highway 1. In fact, if drivers can travel at these speeds and get away with nothing worse than a ticket or a date in court, it's in fine shape.

If they had died though, it would have been another tragedy. Hands would have been wrung, yet again, regarding our seemingly intractable road toll. Experts would have examined each crash scene in minute detail, in the hope of establishing how engineering might reduce the chances of more crashes in the future.

Engineers can't save people from themselves. In fact, improving roads probably just encourages people to go even faster. And drunker. And sleepier.

Everyone who drives a car has it within themselves to do so safely enough to reduce the risk of injury or death to a very small minimum. There will always be genuine accidents, but they are a rarity. Most crashes are the result of poor decisions, which, occasionally, the makers do not get away with.

Years ago the writer remarked to a friend that State Highway 1 from Christchurch to Ashburton was extraordinary. The 80km journey featured just a handful of corners, with long passing lanes every few kilometres. The surface was flat, even and beautifully sealed.
The writer assumed that two-vehicle crashes were a rarity, and his host agreed. But those that did occur, he said, were horrific.

So there you go. People were dying on what had to be one of the best-engineered stretches of state highway in the country.

And with the exception of catastrophic mechanical failure, every one of those crashes would surely have been the fault of a driver. Just as they are in the Far North, with all its hills, subsidence, broken seal and corners.

Don't drive drunk or stoned, don't drive when you're tired, keep to the speed limit, drive to the condition of the road (which might well be less than the speed limit), be patient, don't pass unless it is safe to do so, always wear a safety belt, and allow for the fact that the driver coming towards you might be an idiot and your chances of getting to where you're going in one piece will improve dramatically.

Those who drive when they are in no condition to do so and as if theirs is the only vehicle on the road have, in all but the rarest of circumstances, only themselves to blame when it all goes wrong.

- Northland Age

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