Windscreen wipers are slap-slap-slapping as I approach the Maungatapu Bridge Monday morning. Rain pelts the windscreen, and I take comfort in the wire centre median dividing my two-tonne vehicle from someone else's two-tonne car or truck.
But nothing on the bridge itself separates my car from oncoming vehicles except a dashed line of white paint. No room for error, say orange bollards filling the gap where a railing used to sit. Police say a Mount Maunganui man last Saturday night drove a ute off the bridge. A dive team recovered his body from inside. The crash happened near the same spot where another driver lost his life in 2013.
It wasn't the only deadly highway crash last weekend: Sunday, eight people were killed in an accident involving an SUV and a van. Among the dead, a couple and five of their seven children, on State Highway 1 south of Rotorua. The accident's sole survivor, a nine-year-old boy, is recovering from injuries at Waikato Hospital.
Police said it appeared one vehicle crossed the centreline in wet conditions on a moderate left-hand bend.
The deaths bring April's national road toll to 45, making it the deadliest month on the roads in a decade. Earlier crashes last month included another accident which killed five people from the same family. It happened about 15 kilometres from Sunday's crash.
It's not only friends, family and people injured on our roads who suffer - serious collisions affect witnesses including neighbours and most notably, emergency responders, who deal with the relentless body count. "Died on impact" is a phrase that syncopates my heart rhythms. I don't need further detail to understand the awfulness of the scene.
As a region of people affixed to our cars, we need to do two things: take driving more seriously and make real safety improvements on our roads.
I listened recently to a podcast where a nervous flyer described his routine before take-off: he said 5 Hail Mary prayers. They had to be perfect, so if someone interrupted him, he'd start over. His chance of dying in a plane crash is roughly one in 5 million to one in 11 million (depending on whose statistics you use). The New Zealand Transport Agency reports a 2017 road casualty rate of 8 deaths per 100,000 population and 290 injuries per 100,000 population.
The Insurance Information Institute in the US pegged the 2017 risk of dying in a motor vehicle accident at one in 8,096. Lifetime risk was one in 103.
If there's ever a time for Hail Marys, plastic saints or lucky coins, it's before we leave our driveways.
Driving is the most dangerous thing most of us do on a regular basis. Your car is a hybrid of convenient transport and deadly weapon. Other drivers - strangers - have tried to scare or kill me many times. My crimes: driving the speed limit and not driving like an idiot. Maniacs deliberately menace people who obey the road code. They come at you head-on as the passing lane ends; they tailgate and speed. These fiends have a sense of entitlement; an inflated sense of control and most likely, a massive inferiority complex. It takes a small mind not to realise you don't own the roads.
We can't afford to text message behind the wheel and we can't afford to take that call. We're begging for trouble if we drive impaired, whether under the influence or alcohol, drugs or fatigue. Not wearing a seat belt is practically suicidal.
Thus concludes the driver responsibility part of this tale. The other part, and just as important, is government responsibility to engineer and maintain highways to a standard more likely to preserve lives than destroy them. We must re-evaluate winding two-lane roads with 100 kilometre per-hour speed limits. These are not highways; they're country roads that deserve lower limits. Studies show every 1 per cent increase in average vehicle speed equals a 2 per cent increase in the frequency of injury crashes; a 3 per cent increase in the frequency of severe crashes; and a 4 per cent increase in the frequency of fatal crashes. Better to arrive later than not at all.
The Automobile Association says about 40 per cent of the country's state highway network has a two-star safety rating, with hazards including narrow shoulders, slanting surfaces, and ditches running alongside. One of these highways, State Highway 2 between Tauranga and Katikati recorded 18 fatalities between 2012 and 2016, making it one of the country's deadliest roads. The Government has made some safety upgrades, widening shoulders and installing wire barriers and bollards, but progress on a four-lane highway has stalled. While bureaucrats wring their hands, more families will bury their dead; more crash victims will spend months rehabilitating from injuries.
So many things in our world are engineered to attract money and minimise harm: buildings, retail areas, the digital environment, even outdoor spaces. Design matters, especially when it comes to roads. According to the New Zealand Road Assessment Programme, divided roads and/or median barriers can reduce head-on crashes 40-60 per cent. Straightening curvy roads and shoulder sealing reduce the risk 25-40 per cent. Good road design saves lives, because everyone makes mistakes.
It's time to fix our attitudes towards driving and it's time for government to fix our roads.
Dawn Picken also writes for the Bay of Plenty Weekend Times and tutors for Toi Ohomai. She's a former marketing director and TV presenter who lives in Papamoa with her family.