Natalie Akoorie

Natalie Akoorie is a reporter at the NZ Herald based in Hamilton.

Fire chief to retire after 40 years on highway of death

Don Shanks, chief fire officer of the Mangatangi volunteer brigade, once put 85 white crosses in a paddock in an effort to draw attention to the problems on the road. Pictures / Alan Gibson
Don Shanks, chief fire officer of the Mangatangi volunteer brigade, once put 85 white crosses in a paddock in an effort to draw attention to the problems on the road. Pictures / Alan Gibson

Rural volunteer staff have handled more than their fair share of tragedies on notorious stretch of road

Don Shanks has spent 40 years picking up the pieces on one of New Zealand's deadliest stretches of road.

The Mangatangi Fire Service chief fire officer, who retires in December, attended 89 fatal accidents over 25 years on the road at Maramarua dubbed the "highway of death".

Mr Shanks, who turns 65 today, had no idea of the carnage he would face on State Highway 2 from Pokeno to Mangatarata when he and two others started the volunteer rural fire brigade in 1972 after his haybarn burned down.

"I've never really had any trouble myself, but you don't really know, do you," he said.

One of the worst accidents he attended was a crash that killed a family - a mother and father and their two children.

"He went to sleep, that's the only thing we can think of, and drove across in front of the truck."

Another crash claimed the lives of three people and injured 11 in a seven-car pileup.

But the retired dairy farmer, who has been officer in charge of the station in the tiny Mangatangi community since the first day, said he managed somehow to cope with the tragedies.

"You've got to go in there with the attitude that what's happened's happened. We're only there to try to help."

In 2005, the brigade put 85 white crosses in a paddock near the 32km blackspot to lobby Transit NZ to address the issue.

Three years later, the 6.2km Mangatawhiri deviation opened, and in December the speed limit on the remaining road to the SH25 turnoff to Thames was lowered to 90km/h in an effort to reduce the number and severity of crashes.

Mr Shanks remains unconvinced by the measures.

"I'll say what I've always said it's not the road. I've lived in that area all my life and I've cruised round that place 100km/h no problem at all. It is people behind the wheel doing silly things. It's driver error and people not aware of what they're doing in the conditions."

The brigade was "dead against" lowering the speed limit because "it creates a problem where it makes people more impatient", Mr Shanks said.

He believed the best preventive measure had been Waikato road policing manager Inspector Leo Tooman's concentration of extra patrol cars in the area.

Other campaigns he has been involved in to bring the road's toll down include supporting a petition for the whole section of highway to be turned into a four-lane expressway.

He would like to see the deviation continued to Mangatarata to cope with the increasing amount of traffic. "I reckon they should just do a kilometre each year and just bulldoze it through."

The brigade now has a rescue tender with hydraulic equipment to cut people free from car wrecks.

A group of the the fire staff have trained in first aid to pre-hospital standards - skills that are useful because 80 per cent of the brigade's call-outs are accident or medical related.

Mr Shanks said there were many grim stories, but one highlight was being called to a house last year to assist a woman in labour.

"All the things we normally go to are people who have died on the roads or at home, or had accidents and usually they're dead.

"So to go to something that was a life coming into the world was totally different and put a smile on the guys' faces where normally you don't see one."

Mr Shanks will be officially farewelled at a 40th anniversary reunion in February.


204 crashes at blackspot mostly due to driver error

Most of the 204 crashes on a notorious blackspot in the northern Waikato, which has claimed 43 lives in the past decade, were caused by driver error.

New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) crash statistics show poor observation caused the greatest number of crashes on State Highway 2 from the end of Auckland's Southern Motorway to the Thames turnoff near Mangatarata.

Poor handling, driver fatigue and travelling too fast were also major causes.

Of the crashes, including 20 at the SH2/SH25 intersection, most concerned male drivers aged in their 30s or 40s, while teenagers accounted for only about 25 per cent.

The majority of the accidents happened in dry conditions in December and January, when much of the traffic on the road was moving between Auckland and the Coromandel Peninsula or Bay of Plenty.

NZTA state highway manager Kaye Clark said speed reductions were the first in a range of improvements planned for the road under the Government's Safer Journeys Programme.

Mrs Clark said the agency would present the full extent of those improvements and a time line for implementation after further investigations.


By the numbers
State Highway 2: 2001-2012

43 deaths
81 seriously injured
242 suffered minor injuries
204 crashes

Data includes accidents at the SH2/SH25 turnoff to Thames.

- NZ Herald

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