The line between life and death

By Joanne Carroll

Up to 90 lives might be saved every year if authorities erected cost-effective wire median barriers on dangerous stretches of roads. The Government says we can’t afford to build the barriers. Joanne Carroll asks: can we afford not to?

Local firefighter Glen Whitaker has seen a dramatic decrease in crashes since barriers were installed on SH1 in Rangiriri.
Photo / Rhys Palmer
Local firefighter Glen Whitaker has seen a dramatic decrease in crashes since barriers were installed on SH1 in Rangiriri. Photo / Rhys Palmer

"If". It's the word Justine Chalmers hasn't been able to get out of her head since her soul mate Lance Rielly and his 18-year old stepdaughter Stephanie Fox died in a horror smash last weekend.

"I know Lance shouldn't have been speeding. He wasn't a speedster. He was a good driver but he took an unnecessary risk," says Chalmers. "But if there had been the median barrier everyone has been asking for after other lives were lost there, this might not have happened. It shouldn't have happened."

To some, it comes down to chance: If Rielly had left a little earlier, or a littler later, then this might not have happened. If Rielly had been more careful, if he hadn't sped... To some, it's roading infrastructure: If the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) had built the median barriers - for which it had budgeted $5 million - instead of postponing the spending.

Returning home from Christmas with family in Hastings, police say Rielly had been trying to overtake a car at the end of a passing lane on State Highway 1, north of Paraparaumu.

He crossed the centre line and crashed head-on into another car, injuring a family of five, including three children. Chalmers was travelling a few kilometres behind the pair. She says the 39-year-old self-employed carpet cleaner was "one of a kind". He had two children, Natalie and Kaylee, from a previous relationship but was also step-dad to Stephanie, and to Justine's two children, Judy and Quinn.

"Lance was taken from us far too early. He was such an amazing, caring guy and not one person who ever met our Lancey disliked him. I will always remember his smile and his kind, nurturing ways," Chalmers says.

But Stephanie's family is directing their anger at Rielly. Her funeral was held in the Wellington suburb of Johnsonville on Friday, St John's Anglican Church bedecked with flowers brought by her friends.

Stephanie's mother and Rielly's former partner, Mary Ann Dawson, told the packed church speeding was not worth it. "Through this tragedy I want to say, don't take the risk." She is right: if Rielly had taken his foot off the accelerator, waited patiently in the line of traffic, he and Stephanie would be alive. But Chalmers is also right: people sometimes make mistakes, but authorities can soften the damage caused by those mistakes-if they're willing to invest more in safety.

The crash that killed Rielly and Stephanie was not the first at that spot.Three months earlier, 17-year-old Kelly Thompson died there and now her grandfather Frank Burke wants the expressway fast-tracked. "They've just got to get their finger out and do something about that motorway-a proper one with a big median strip, a direct road to get people in and out of Wellington safely," he told the Dominion Post this
week.

Kapiti Emergency Medical Service director Dr Chris Lane has been attending crashes on State Highway 1, north of Paraparaumu, for 24 years, including the one that killed Kelly, and the one last weekend. For much of that time, he has been campaigning for median barriers.

"I have seen many deaths and serious injuries on that corner and nearby. It is a treacherous road," Lane says. "It's a difficult area. In the crash last week the car that was overtaking was going in excess of 100km/h. He kept on overtaking and got to the stage that there were so many cars on his side of the road he couldn't merge back in-there was no space for him and he had nowhere to go except straight into the front of a car. The impact caused total devastation."

The most common element was cars crossing the centre line. "The cost of not putting in median barriers is too high," Lane says. "When you arrive at those crashes you never see skid marks. It takes one eighth of a second to cross the centre line so people don't have a chance to slow down. If we had something to stop the cars crossing the centre line the deaths would stop overnight." It is the same around New Zealand. Fifteen of the 18 deaths over the Christmas and New Year holiday period were on the open road; eight of them were in head-on crashes. But there have been no deaths on the Centennial Highway leading into Paekakariki since the installation of wire barriers. Nor on the once-lethal stretch of SH1 near Rangiriri, since the Waikato Expressway with its median barrier was built.

Safer Journeys is the Government's strategy to guide improvements in road safety over the period 2010 to 2020. It says head-on crashes account for 23 per cent of all fatal crashes. Yet more than 90 per cent of them could be avoided by having a median barrier while loss of control contributes to 40 per cent of all fatal crashes and these crashes would be less severe if there were median barriers on the road.

"Many of New Zealand roads fall short of the safety standards we need," the strategy states. "We also know that investment in roads and roadsides will support the other priority areas. Road engineering improvements are not cheap and need to be maintained, but they are effective and last a long time. The issue is how much we can do, given resources and competing priorities.

"We will also work to make roads forgiving, so that they help to reduce the consequences of those crashes that do occur. We will do this through installing median barriers." International research shows 43 per cent of fatal crashes can be avoided with the use of median barriers, and countries such as Sweden require median barriers on all high-speed routes that carry more than 10,000 vehicles a day.

Roads without median barriers have reduced speed limits of 70km/h. Yet in New Zealand, many roads carry up to 20,000 vehicles a day at 100km/h. The NZTA estimates installing median barriers on all high-risk, high volume rural roads would save eight to 10 lives a year and 102 to 119 injuries a year.

Saving those lives would save society $42 to $52 million a year in emergency service call-outs, health bills, funeral costs, insurance costs and more. And that doesn't even count the emotional cost. The Government places a value on a human life: $3.56 million per fatality.

A serious injury is valued at $378,000; a minor injury at $20,000. And yet the Government has refused to commit to cost-effective wire median barriers on those high-risk, high-volume roads. About 22 per cent of the country's 11,000km of state highways have risk ratings of high or medium-high. Figures released under the Official Information Act show the cost of putting median barriers on the 157km of medium-to-high risk roads that carry more than 15,000 vehicles a day would be between $236-$471 million.

By that calculation the wire barriers would pay for themselves in five years by saving lives and injuries. The Automobile Association estimates the barriers could save up to 90 lives a year. Spokesman Simon Lambourne says: "Not only will barriers save lives now, they will continue to save lives every year and the cost of putting the barrier in will be rapidly repaid. Traffic fine revenue should go back into improving road safety. A combination of rumble strips and median wire barriers on some of the highest risk roads would save up to 90 lives a year."

Road safety expert Mark Scott has been advocating the introduction of median barriers since 1984. "Median barriers protect people's lives," he says. "Why do they want to build motorways on the cheap at the cost of people's lives? It's not acceptable."

The pool of money for road improvements is limited, and newly- appointed Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee is waiting for reports from the NZTA on what it would like to do with that money.

"I haven't yet seen reports on what caused those accidents over the holiday period," Brownlee says. "There have always been calls for median barriers to be put up. The NZTA is constantly assessing how to make our roads safer and making sure the roads are built and pitched properly." He says he cannot yet comment on or when the Government will allocate more funds for median barriers.

"Median barriers stop vehicles crossing the centre line but they don't take away from the fact that drivers need to be vigilant," he says. "They don't stop drivers hitting the barriers and causing damage to following traffic." The NZTA must prioritise killer roads and black spots. "When we plan safety improvements, they need to be prioritised against other safety projects in the country, based on effectiveness, need and feasibility," says NZTA spokesman Andy Knackstedt.

"In reality, all projects need to go through a process to ensure we're investing money where it's needed most, and where the overall safety benefits will be the greatest."

Prioritised changes have contributed to the annual road toll dropping from 843 in 1973, to 284 last year. But Knackstedt says: "We cannot lose sight of the fact that nearly 300 deaths and many more serious injuries still add up to shattered lives, broken families and a huge amount of pain, grief and suffering."

Over the past six years the Government had invested more than $30 million retrofitting wire rope median barriers to seven high crash sites around the country: Rangiriri, Heavens Passing lane, Haywards Hill, Centennial Highway, Moonshine Bridge to Whakatiki St, Nelson's Whakatu Drive and River Rd in the Hutt Valley.

Median barriers have also been included in a number of recently completed expressway projects, including sections of the Waikato Expressway. Crash numbers have also dropped by a fifth on the 1500km of busy arterial roads where the NZTA has installed rumble strips between 2008 and 2010. Rumble strips are a relatively low cost measure to address the risks of driver fatigue, says Knackstedt, and they are also applied to centre lines and reduce head-on crashes.

Wire rope median barriers and rumble strips are effective in reducing crashes, but there is a significant difference in cost: rumble strips cost $25,000 a kilometre; wire rope barriers cost around $1.5 million a kilometre to install. This is because the highway may need to be widened to accommodate them and the Government may have to buy neighbouring properties. And it's not just Government beancounters who are equivocal about installing the barriers.

The wire rope barriers have been dubbed "cheese-cutters" by motorcyclists, who called for them to be removed after the gruesome death of a young Auckland rider in 2007. New Zealand Motorcycle Safety Consultants chief executive Allan Kirk says: "If you hit a wire rope barrier at over 70 or 80km/h they will slice a motorcyclist to bits. The wire barriers are the cheapest way of dividing the road but they cause more problems for motorcyclists.

"They often install them on roads they are going to realign anyway so it's a waste of money. They need to think about where they really need barriers and install concrete barriers only."

This weekend, one very compelling voice swung in behind median barriers. National road policing manager Superintendent Paula Rose says barriers have been proven to reduce the severity of crashes and the number of head-on crashes.

"More roads are being divided by median barriers but we have to target high risk roads first," Rose says. "It's an expensive treatment and we have to ensure we are getting the biggest bang for our buck. Or should I say the least bang for our investment."

Knackstedt agrees a combination of changes is needed to save more lives on our roads: safer drivers, safer cars and safer roads. "We need to do more to save more lives and prevent more injuries," he admits. "People make mistakes, some crashes are inevitable, and those who build and design vehicles and roads must share responsibility with those who use them for reducing the likelihood of death or serious injury from road crashes."

Some will say, place the blame where it should lie: on the reckless or speeding driver. Dawson challenged her daughter's packed funeral on Friday in Johnsonville: "If you want to get somewhere sooner, is it worth it? It's not." Mourners placed flowers on Stephanie's casket before it was carried from the church with Dawson following behind.

Yesterday, many of the same mourners attended another funeral, that of Rielly. His partner Chalmers acknowledges Dawson's anger but says the community needs to look more widely for solutions. "People make mistakes, but by putting barriers in, the impact of those mistakes would be so much less."

'We don't have fatalities any more'

"When you arrive at those crashes you never see skid marks. It takes one-eighth of a second to cross the centre line."

State Highway 1 through Rangiriri was one of the most dangerous stretches of road in NewZealand until a wide median barrier was installed. Fatal crashes turned off "like a switch" after the Waikato Expressway was put through in 2006, say local firefighters.

Te Kauwhata deputy fire chief Glen Whitaker has been a volunteer firefighter for 14 years. He has attended countless horrific crashes, including many head-on fatal collisions on the stretch of road between Rangiriri and Meremere, north of Hamilton.

Now:"Everything's just stopped. It's incredible.We still have crashes but cars are hitting the barriers and staying on their side of the road and it's not as dangerous as when they used to cross the centre line and drive into oncoming traffic,"he says. "We don't have any head-on crashes and no fatalities."

Fire chief Kevin Hickey said nasty head-on crashes with people trapped in mangled wrecks has been commonplace for the volunteers. "It was horrible.We had to cut people out of cars maybe once every 10 days; now we use the jaws of life about every 10 months.

Since the barriers went in, it has just been amazing. It was like turning off a switch,"he says. Resident Huia Heke,who lived on the state highway, witnessed a number of fatalities.

"Often it is a moment of inattention when people cross the centre line but sometimes it was people trying to overtake when they shouldn't have. It was so bad." Between 1991 and 1998 at least 31 people died on the 18km stretch of road between Mercer and Rangiriri, a New Zealand Transport Agency study shows. It was a two-lane, undivided, high-volume road with a history of head-on crashes.

There had been seven fatal crashes and five serious- injury crashes in the five years before the barriers. In the five years since, there have been no fatalities. That's a 90 per cent reduction in head-on crashes and a 63 per cent reduction in fatal and serious crashes. However, there was an increase in minor-injury crashes as people bounce off the barriers and came to a relatively safe stop.

-additional reporting APNZ

- NZ Herald

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