In the increasing sense of international emergency generated by the Covid-19 pandemic, it would be easy to gloss over what is happening locally. Recent Northland road fatalities are a case in point.
In Northland in the past month, we have had two triple road fatalities. The most recent was on State Highway 1 at Towai last Friday. Brief details were reported in the news at the weekend, which acknowledged the horrific impact on the families involved and the police thanked the Kawakawa and Hikurangi fire crews for their help.
What doesn't get reported is the ripple effect that one driver's mistake can have on a far greater number of people than those immediately involved in the tragedy.
Following drivers immediately call 111 and do what they can to help those involved in the crash. It is amazing how resilient and proactive we can become when we need to instinctively make decisions about a situation in front of us. Traffic is halted both ways while emergency services arrive.
Police are professionals, trained to deal with road accidents. They take charge, secure the scene, assess the situation and the state of the people involved. This is a potential crime scene and they need to gather evidence. The road is inevitably closed for a time, causing frustration for travellers.
The fire brigade's volunteers are also professional. They have dropped what they are doing in their normal jobs, rushed to the station and travelled to the scene together. St John's paramedics are there as well, and the professionals act together. They delicately remove the victims, cover the dead with blankets and focus on stabilising the critically injured and getting them to hospital.
Over the next few hours the victims are removed, the vehicles taken as evidence, the scene tidied and some sense of normality returns. Each participant will be quietly reflecting on what they have been part of and will be needing to formally debrief amongst themselves over the next few days.
Part of returning to normality is how the following traffic which had had their journey disrupted deals with itself. This is part of the emergency response procedure and the one which is most difficult to forecast and manage.
Some crash hotspots have established diversion routes to which the following traffic can be directed. As well, cellphone technology and state highway management systems can make it possible for following drivers to learn where to go.
Most often though, drivers are left to figure it out for themselves, based on their own local knowledge or in vehicle mapping capability. This involves state highway traffic diverting to local roads. These may show as a likely route on a Google map, but give no indication of the type of road and whether it is suitable for vehicles other than cars.
Subsequent to Friday's crash, there are a couple of photographs circulating of a 50 seater bus with 45 tourists on board, stranded and bellied on an uphill corner of a one-way metal road. The road is little more than a clay track, carved through the bush in the middle of last century. This is not an unusual situation when state highway traffic is diverted.
In recent times road resilience has become something of a mantra. The Kaikoura earthquakes and Manawatū Gorge closure have posed some real challenges to local roads as the state highway is restored.
NZTA has made some progress with an interactive alternate route system on its website which indicates the best route to travel with state highway emergencies.
Local roads though were never built and are not maintained to take state highway traffic. There needs to be some recognition of strategic diversionary routes being properly identified, funded and maintained.
People make mistakes, road crashes happen. How we minimise the ripple effect is our concern.
• John Williamson is chairman of Roadsafe Northland and Northland Road Safety Trust, a former national councillor for NZ Automobile Association and former Whangārei District Council member.