The festive season is a time of excess. But as the country’s top traffic officer Paula Rose tells Alan Perrott, there is little cheer in counting its cost.
First thing Christmas morning, Paula Rose will rise and count the dead.
Then the 48-year-old superintendent will relax until the same time the next morning. It's a 6am ritual our top traffic cop has conducted every day since taking charge of our roads two years ago. If she could choose one gift for herself on the big day, it would be a road toll sitting exactly where it was when she went to bed.
She isn't spinning a company line when she says she will be measuring her success by the number of New Zealanders who enjoy a normal Christmas this year. The rippling impact of road deaths at this time is something she learned as a schoolgirl.
Rose was a seventh former at Dunedin's Moreau College when four people died on Christmas Eve. "It was horrific, I knew all of them," she says. "Two went to the same school as me ... so that was a hugely impacting experience.
"But I don't think I really appreciated how much it would shape me - and I've had a number of friends hurt or killed since then - but it really did. Many years later, I met the police officer who had been at the scene. His most vivid memory was of watching this guy hosing the road down and all the blood and the presence of those four people being washed away. Then he had to go home and celebrate Christmas with his family.
"A lot of people are touched by events like that, from the immediate family to those who turn up at work to find an empty desk or a space in the staffroom. You can't just pick up those pieces. So yes, in a very personal sense, that night has sat with me ever since and I don't want to hear about anyone having to spend Christmas day at a hospital bedside because of a road smash."
That's some mission she has set herself, especially when success is so intangible. Outside of the annual death toll horse race, who can tell how many of us still draw breath because they noticed a drink-driving ad? Accidents happen for a multitude of reasons, including plain stupidity and carelessness, neither of which can be remedied by a law, ticket or checkpoint.
But this is Rose's dream job all the same. Her passion for what she sees as lifesaving work shines from her eyes and has helped make her one of the most recognised uniformed faces in the country, a status no doubt aided by the novelty of seeing a woman in a senior police role.
"To do that job properly requires a high level of personal commitment," says Mike Noon, chair of the AA's driver education foundation. "Paula has that in spades and she is utterly sincere about it."
Noon has worked closely with Rose on several initiatives and credits her with a willingness to be bold, hear new ideas and work with others.
One of her favourite accolades of late came while walking through Wellington airport. A young boy walked up to her and wondered aloud why he knew her: "Oh, you're the lady who comes into my lounge every night."
This was honey to her ears. Rose sees her role almost as community work, so to know that kids notice her is magic.
It would have been a moment to make her late father proud. It was Bill Young who had pulled up a chair beside his daughter - one of six children - to have a quiet chat about her future.
Like many girls in the late 70s, Rose started looking for a career in traditional areas like teaching or nursing and had diligently fired off applications to all corners of the country.
She was considering her first acceptance letter when her dad asked if it was really what she wanted. His bigger question was whether it was right to take the spot and then not follow through on it, denying another person the shot. Why not go to university, take whatever you fancy for a while and figure out what you enjoy? "Learning is never wasted," he said.
So she headed to the University of Otago and took a mixed bag of history, classical studies and theology before settling into a commerce degree.
She was already considering a post-graduate diploma when her eye caught a newspaper ad for a road safety instructor job with the old Ministry of Transport. "Everything it offered were things that I wanted," says Rose.
So in 1984 the then 24-year-old arrived at Trentham Traffic College. To make the achievement more special, her father surprised her with some dusty old photographs of himself as a motorcycle traffic officer in 1945.
After graduating, she secured a post back in Dunedin and was soon issuing her first speeding ticket ... to a woman she had gone to school with.
"We had a chat and then she was most concerned that I was still going to write her a ticket. But just because I know you ... The thing is that she had exceeded the speed limit, and by a reasonable amount. Then I met her again at a school reunion and she told everyone that I'd given her her only ever speeding ticket. From my point of view, that was nice to hear because I clearly did change her behaviour."
From 1986 to 1989 Rose was in sole charge of the Timaru office, working with everyone from pre-schoolers to pensioners, before being restructured back to Dunedin in time for the ministry amalgamation of 1992. Suddenly she was back at school, this time at the Porirua Police College.
Rose admits to a fair bit of anxiety among her colleagues over the change. The general feeling was that they would give it a year and see how things went. Things went well for Rose.
All the same, she also got started on a post-graduate management diploma. A potential fallback option? Maybe, but she says it was mostly with her police future in mind, a path that saw her promoted to sergeant in 1995, the same year her now-husband Scott Rose resigned from the force and moved into IT.
"He had done his dash, but obviously he still understands all the pressures and demands of policing, and he's been extraordinarily supportive. He just doesn't want to hear about work."
Becoming Sgt Rose opened up more opportunities: "Anybody who is a police sergeant or above is ambitious, because you have to make a deliberate effort to be promoted. There are exams and courses you have to apply for. So, was I ambitious? Yes, obviously. Everybody has to be to get anywhere beyond constable and I've always loved a challenge."
Which is where the ground got bumpy. It won't surprise anyone that the New Zealand Police haven't always enjoyed a great reputation for gender equality. In 2008, the head of the Independent Police Conduct Authority, Justice Lowell Goddard, lambasted them for the lack of top-ranked women and the high rate of attrition among female recruits.
At present only three of 41 police superintendents are women: Rose; Washington DC liaison officer Sandra Manderson, and relieving Wellington District Commander Gail Gibson, who retires at the end of the year.
The challenge of breaking into the men's club is a subject that can bring out Rose's thorns. "I always get a lot of questions about that. People want to know if it's harder being a woman in the police than a man, and really, I don't know. I've never been a man. I'm just living my life. But I think there are a whole lot of reasons for why we haven't had as many women as men and they are changing. To my mind the real issue is about getting the right person in the job."
If she won't talk about it, others will. Anonymously. They claim that when she returned to Dunedin it was made very clear that there was a certain level a woman could reach and no more. Whether accurate or not, after working through a variety of roles such as a sectional supervisor, prosecutor and intelligence unit head, in 2000 Rose moved to Wellington and got her first post in the big blue police headquarters.
By 2003 she was national manager of organisational performance, which meant travelling the country to assess how everyone was doing while also looking for local initiatives with wider applications.
Maybe it was her clear willingness to travel, but just as she was leaving work one Friday in 2005 she got a call asking if she would accept a secondment to the peacekeeping force on the Solomon Islands. In 10 days' time.
She found it a rewarding experience and not just from a life experience perspective, her husband revealed himself a surprisingly accomplished letter-writer. On top of that, Rose attended a major WWII commemoration, where she represented two uncles who had served in the Pacific and had her first tilt at her current job. "I got to the interview stage and had to do it over the phone under a tin roof in a raging storm. It got so bad I had to stop talking, they couldn't hear me over the noise."
She didn't make the cut, but any lingering pain was eased by winning the Foreign and Commonwealth Aotearoa Fellowship, an annual cash grant awarded to a senior public service manager displaying great potential. Rose used the money to fund a stint in England, where she worked with the Thames Valley Police and undertook various management and policing courses.
Her second shot at the roading job came in 2008, when the incumbent Superintendent Dave Cliff became Canterbury's District Commander. While "stunning progress" has been made in improving road safety, he says he found continuing that trend without further funding a challenge. Other than that, he says his biggest frustration is that most road deaths and injuries are caused by people ignoring the most basic safety messages. "I think that is why the 'revenue gathering' claim is highly offensive to police officers motivated by a desire to keep people safe."
So, no easy task, but the job had become something of a holy grail for Rose and getting it was an instant career high.
"When I first started in traffic safety I never thought I'd ever get to have a go at this. But then as I got up a level I got to look at the next couple and think maybe I could get there as well. I was always willing to have a go ... Then I got called to [assistant commissioner] Gavin Jones' office ... 'I'd just like to let you know that you've been appointed as ...' That was such a huge moment, I was that person on the game show who's just won the car. I was so excited I gave him a hug. Then I called my husband and we went out for dinner."
The next day she got up and checked the road toll for the first time.
When we last spoke, the 2010 toll had just clicked over to 351.
"Seeing a number like that isn't about getting disappointed or frustrated, it's a sadness. It doesn't make me an emotional wreck or anything like that, I just believe that feeling something for all the families and people involved is an important part of what we do.
"There has to be a level of professional detachment, but unless you have some level of feeling, I don't think you're in a position where you are motivated to really make a difference."
Christmas: the season for egg nog, seasonally inappropriate meals and frustating traffic delays. If you're smart you'll simply stay wherever you are. But if you do have to drive, the police want nothing more than for you to reach your destination safely. So here are a few of the measures and actions that will help you see out the holidays in one piece.
Five things the police will do for us
* Put more officers on the roads over the holidays and reduce the over-limit speed tolerance to 5km/h.
* Increase their alcohol enforcement with more booze buses and checkpoints.
* Close passing lanes and stop road works to keep traffic flowing smoothly.
* Keep you informed about the roads through their media and NZTA messages.
* Give you whatever advice they can to help you plan a safe trip.
Five things you can do for them
* Plan ahead.
* Make sure you do all the necessary safety checks on your vehicle before you leave home.
* Drive to the conditions. Take care with your speed.
* If you're going to drink, plan a safe way home.
* Expect the unexpected.