KARL DU FRESNE: Traffic cones and the precautionary principle
Driving between Eketahuna and Masterton recently, I came across some road works.
The road was reduced to one lane each way. There were the usual Stop/Go controls at either end, but this time there was a new twist.
I was at the head of a queue that was stopped at one end. A line of vehicles coming the other way was led through by a white ute with flashing lights.
As they reached my end of the road works, the ute pulled over to the verge. Then it did a U-turn and positioned itself at the head of the line of traffic waiting to go the other way.
On the back of the ute there was a sign saying “Please follow me”. Needless to say, I was pathetically grateful for this guidance because otherwise I would have had no clue where to go.
I’m being facetious, of course. The section of road works was only a few hundred metres long. There was nowhere else for me to go but forward. There were no side-roads that I might have inadvertently veered off onto, and therefore no risk that I and the cars behind me might have ended up hopelessly lost somewhere in the back of beyond.
So I wonder, what genius decided that I and my fellow drivers needed to be escorted by a ute with flashing lights through routine (i.e. non-hazardous) road works that we were perfectly capable of navigating without assistance?
Incidentally, there was a man in a hi-vis vest sitting in the ute’s passenger seat. For what purpose, exactly? Perhaps he was there to ensure the driver didn’t take a wrong turn himself, or – far more likely, given the tedium of their duties – fall asleep.
In other words, two men doing two non-jobs – guiding other vehicles through road works that generations of New Zealand drivers have miraculously coped with in the past without risk to life and limb.
Here was one of the great cons of the 21st century, the cult of traffic management, carried to new levels of absurdity. Some inventive pooh-bah in Worksafe (sorry, Mahi Haumaru Aotearoa) had found yet another way to waste public money, needlessly inflate the cost of highway maintenance and pad out an already bloated and largely superfluous industry.
Auckland mayor Wayne Brown recently highlighted the scale of this racket, revealing that Auckland Council and its associated bureaucracies spend an astonishing $145 million a year on traffic management. And that’s not counting the money spent by private companies such as Vector, which says traffic management costs it $30 million a year.
Factor in wasted time and needless disruption, and you have an even bigger economic cost to the country.
Brown has shrewdly zeroed in on a 21st century phenomenon that causes millions of New Zealanders to burn with frustration and resentment. No one can drive anywhere and not be aware of the scale of the traffic management fetish.
It’s attested to by vast forests of road cones – frequently arranged in complex configurations that seem more likely to cause accidents than prevent them – and by patently absurd speed restrictions, often where no road works are in progress or have long since ceased.
Perhaps the most ostentatious symbols of the traffic management cult are the big trucks with flashing arrows that appear to be mandatory even for jobs as routine as mowing grass verges. The occupants of these vehicles seem to spend most of their time looking at YouTube videos on their phones.
I’ve observed situations where one man driving a tractor mower – i.e. the solitary bloke actually doing real work – has been protected not by one, not by two, not by three but by four accompanying safety vehicles with flashing lights and arrows.
In many instances, as in the recent case of my escort vehicle, there are two men in the cab. The passengers seem to be there for no other reason than to keep the drivers company.
It’s astonishing to think that New Zealand’s highway network was built without any of this palaver. What changed to suddenly make it necessary? Did I miss a swathe of news stories about road workers being killed and maimed by careless motorists?
The emphasis on safety would be more tolerable if visible progress was being made on the projects that these elaborate precautions are supposed to facilitate, but the NZ Transport Agency has a woeful record for getting jobs done on time and within budget.
I can’t count the number of years NZTA has been upgrading a relatively small stretch of State Highway 58 between the Hutt Valley and Porirua. Bizarrely, even on the sections where work has been completed and the road is now wide, smooth and safe, a speed limit of 50kmh is still in force. Most motorists sensibly ignore it.
The traffic management cult is itself an outgrowth of a longer-established cult, the cult of health and safety. Both proceed from the assumption that most New Zealanders are imbeciles who can’t be trusted to make sensible decisions for themselves and must therefore be protected by ever-proliferating rules and regulations, the economic costs of which are incalculable.
Both also reflect a mindset that has become embedded in the bureaucracy and largely goes unchallenged by the politicians who are nominally in charge. I’m referring to something called the precautionary principle, which holds that every theoretical risk – and I stress theoretical –must be mitigated by appropriate safeguards, often without regard for sensible cost vs. benefit assessments.
I wonder what proportion of the national roading budget is consumed by traffic safety management. My guess is that the amount must have increased exponentially over the past couple of decades.
Perhaps more to the point, has anyone calculated the cost of traffic safety management against deaths and injuries avoided as a result? I doubt it. Someone has got very rich providing services that for the most part are not needed.
Evidence of the precautionary principle is everywhere. Yet ironically, and tragically, the principle isn’t always followed where the need for it is obvious and urgent – as in the case of Whakaari/White Island, where Worksafe stood aside for years, apparently happy to allow tourists onto a high-risk active volcano, then had the gall to prosecute tourism operators and even rescuers after an entirely predictable 2019 eruption caused 22 deaths. In a breathtaking act of self-exoneration, Worksafe let itself off the hook.
The precautionary principle appeals to the bureaucratic psyche because it provides an excuse for every control freak’s dream: the perpetual expansion of an oppressive and intrusive state apparatus that’s constantly looking for new ways to exercise power over people’s daily lives. And for the most part we obligingly comply because we are essentially passive people, programmed to submit to authority. We may mutter with resentment and metaphorically shake our fists, but ultimately we fall into line. The bureaucrats know this, so are free to proceed with impunity.
Examples of the precautionary principle are everywhere. A few examples:
■ Children’s playground equipment – for example, swings and old tractors that have entertained kids for decades – being declared unsafe because of the theoretical risk of an accident. How many children were killed or maimed playing on them? Good question.
■ Compulsory scaffolding for even the most routine housing construction and maintenance jobs. It has made scaffolders rich, but has anyone bothered to measure the accidents prevented against the additional costs imposed?
■ Increasingly restrictive limitations on who can donate blood. I wonder how many prospective donors have been put off because the rules kept being tightened. It certainly strikes many people as ridiculous that they still can’t give blood if they spent six months or more in Britain between 1980 and 1996, and hence were theoretically exposed to mad cow disease.
■ Airport security screening. Admittedly, this is a biggie. Most travellers put up with the inconvenience, indignity, delay and legalised bullying because they’ve been convinced it’s essential for their safety. But if terrorists wanted to attract worldwide attention by killing a lot of people in one hit, they could do it on a provincial flight (no security checks) or even a suburban bus. Could it be time for a rethink?
■ Nitpicking employment rules that discourage initiative and even basic compassion – as in the case of a rest home employee who was sacked for operating a hoist by herself, against the rules, when a desperate patient in a wheelchair needed to go to the toilet and there was no one available to help. (The Employment Relations Authority, to its credit, held that she was unjustifiably dismissed and ordered that compensation be paid.)
■ Small-scale makers and sellers of cheese and raw milk being hounded by bureaucrats with demands for risk management plans, testing fees and hygiene compliance rules that drive them out of business.
■ The Covid lockdown. Say no more.
■ Worm farms and cat breeding being classified in health and safety legislation as “high risk”. The same legislation rated mini-golf as more dangerous than the actual sport and putting up curtains as more hazardous than demolishing buildings, thus providing a rare insight into the Alice in Wonderland mentality of the health and safety cultists. (Note: while checking this, I stumbled across a document entitled “Health and Safety Guide for Community Gardens – Worm Farm Risk Assessment”. It ran to six pages and included such hazards as sunlight and dehydration. Just to be clear, these were presented as risks for humans, not the worms. I rest my case.)
■ Page after page of safety instructions – e.g. please do not use this hair dryer while you are submerged in the bath – with every electrical appliance purchased. (Okay, the hair dryer example is a slight exaggeration – but only a slight one.)
These are just a few examples off the top of my head. I’m sure readers can think of others.
Interestingly, even people on the Left – normally the most eager to impose controls on their fellow citizens – are starting to rebel against the dead weight of all-controlling Big Government and its inevitable tendency to deter individual initiative. Can anyone guess who said the following after Auckland bureaucrats were caught napping by the disastrous late January floods?
“I can’t begin to fathom what was going through their [Auckland Council’s] heads, but I’ve definitely seen over the past few years that we have continued to build out our bureaucracies at every single level of Government to effectively be super risk-averse.
“And being super risk-averse when we are facing the greatest kind of flooding and crises that any of us have in our lifetimes here in Tāmaki Makaurau at this scale didn’t benefit anyone.”
Waddya know: that was Chloe Swarbrick, whose party probably holds the world record for the number of control freaks per square metre. The aversity to risk that she criticises is what underpins the precautionary principle.
Then there was this commentator, writing about the book The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighbourhoods by John McKnight and Peter Block: “These writers warn us of the dangers of the dependency that results from governments fixing our problems for us; robbing us of our capacity to problem-solve, and reducing our ability to build resilience. And that is something we are going to need in spades as we confront the challenges we know are coming our way.”
That was former Christchurch mayor and Labour cabinet minister Lianne Dalziel, writing in Newsroom in January. She went on to talk about the need to empower citizens to solve their own problems rather than rely on the government.
When even people like Swarbrick and Dalziel are sounding the alarm about bureaucracies stifling initiative and resilience, perhaps the message is getting through that New Zealanders don’t need to be infantilised by governments that insist on wiping their noses and their bottoms for them.
But back to traffic and roads. Nowhere are the loony excesses of the precautionary principle currently more evident than in the Wairarapa, where the NZTA has imposed an 80 kmh speed limit all the way from Masterton to Featherston in place of the previous standard 100 kmh.
No rational case has been made for this. The NZTA is doing it because it can. It’s an agency that’s out of control and answerable to no one.
The 36 km stretch of road between Masterton and Featherston is entirely flat and mostly straight and wide. In the 13 kilometres between Greytown and Featherston there are only two bends. There can be few straighter or safer stretches of highway in the country.
According to the Wairarapa Times-Age, citing figures obtained under the OIA, there have been 10 fatal crashes on the Masterton-Featherston section of State Highway 2 in the past 22 years. But get this: speed was a factor in only one – that’s right, one – of those deaths. Of 43 crashes that were rated as serious, speed was a factor in only nine.
On this flimsy basis, NZTA has imposed a speed limit that will unnecessarily add time and expense to the journeys of everyone – commercial transport operators as well as private motorists – driving through the Wairarapa. A local commercial real estate agent, Chris Gollins, has pointed out that the additional travel time will serve as a disincentive to anyone thinking of moving to the region or setting up a new business there. Does NZTA care? Of course not. Not their problem.
The NZTA staged a pretend public consultation process but ignored the hundreds of submissions opposing the new limit. Now the heat is on local MP Kieran McAnulty, who after initially pooh-poohing NZTA’s plan then seemed to change his mind but now, observing the public backlash, has executed a second U-turn.
NZTA’s argument is that the 80 kmh limit will make the road safer. But by that reasoning, a 50 kmh limit would be safer still.
In any case, will the road be made safer? I predict that if anything, the new limit will have the reverse effect. Law-abiding drivers will conscientiously comply, even if they think it’s absurd. But others, chafing with impatience at being delayed where there’s no obvious reason for it, will pull out to overtake and risk hitting someone coming the other way.
In other words, expect the law of unintended consequences to kick in – as it so often does when bureaucrats make decisions that defy common sense.
And lest readers think this is purely a local issue, consider this: if the NZTA gets away with it in the Wairarapa, it will try it elsewhere. There’s nothing surer.
This article was first published at Karl du Fresne's blog