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The Fatal Crash in Otaihanga on 30 December 2011

Opinion – Tim Rossiter

Returning to New Zealand after several years abroad gives you a different perspective on life here. It’s been three months since I’ve been back living and working in Wellington after five years in the UK and you can’t help comparing the two places …

The Fatal Crash in Otaihanga on 30 December 2011

Tim Rossiter
January 12, 2011

Returning to New Zealand after several years abroad gives you a different perspective on life here. It’s been three months since I’ve been back living and working in Wellington after five years in the UK and you can’t help comparing the two places for good and ill.

Take events on 30 December 2011 as an example. I had been dropped off at Waikanae’s new train station preparing to head back to the capital to join in New Year’s celebrations. The weather had taken a seriously bad turn in the preceding 24 hours ending a welcome run of barbeque weather and it had been bucketing down ever since.

Arriving with about ten minutes to spare I met with my first frustration of the afternoon. The trains were not running over the holiday period and were replaced by buses. That’s a bit inconvenient I thought. I could understand a lack of demand on the stat holidays but many people would surely still be working in the city that day, a Friday, not to mention those holiday makers travelling from A to B. Oh well, it’s all part of the readjustment to living in a smaller place again, in what I’ve started to think of as sleepy New Zealand.

Standing with a small group of waiting commuters huddled under the eaves of the station I noticed that the traffic seemed busier than usual. It was going to be a long, slow ride on a replacement bus to Wellington I lamented. On closer inspection the cars barely seemed to be moving south and were backing up with each passing minute. Also there didn’t seem to be any northbound traffic moving through the lights. Something was badly wrong with this picture.

I asked a young guy waiting nearby what was going on. There’d been an accident, with fatalities, just south of the town at Otaihanga. We weren’t going anywhere fast. In fact the accident was caused by yet another head on collision as a driver lost control of their vehicle in the wet. The tenth and eleventh deaths on our roads since the holiday road toll began. I don’t think I’m the only one who feels a little uneasy on our crowded single lane highways at holiday time. It seems like when we say ‘take care and have a safe holiday’ at this time of year it is all the more genuine in this country as you never know who might drift over the centre line your way.

As the rain kept pouring down on the station roof it was obvious we would be stranded for quite some time. I met a middle aged couple and passed on the bad news to them. The husband Burt, an expat American, had three hours to get to the airport to catch a flight to Auckland at 8.30pm and his onward flight to LA to visit his ailing 85 year old father. With the news coming in that there were no replacement buses between Waikanae and Paraparaumu, and the clock ticking, Burt and his wife Shelley offered me a ride to Paraparaumu station in the hope that the cars might soon be moving again. It seemed a good idea. Who knew when or if this bus service would commence again with no traffic moving north and northbound vehicles at a slow crawl. We only needed to get beyond the accident site; a mere two kilometres, then we would be able to link up with the city bound replacement bus in Paraparaumu.

I gladly accepted the offer as did an older gentleman with a cane also huddled under the shelter. Unfortunately the plan backfired as what began as a slow crawl through the Waikanae lights came to a complete halt just south of town. We didn’t move far for a frustrating hour during which time Burt and his wife frantically tried to ring Air New Zealand to sound out options about changing his flight time or even to switch to a Palmerston North one (which it turns out doesn’t have a flight to Auckland after 5pm on a weekday). Shelley also rang around to have someone look after the three kids she had left at home in Waikanae, thinking it would be just a quick drop-off at the station. What a shame the trains weren’t running.

In the car we heard several updates about the accident in Otaihanga. It was a head on crash near the turnoff to Southwards car museum. One adult was pronounced dead at the scene and another critically ill passenger died shortly after in hospital; several children were also taken to A&E for treatment. To all of our surprise the accident had occurred shortly after 3pm. By this time it was 6pm and 3 hours had gone by with the police still saying it would take at least another hour to clear the scene.

Mild mannered Burt was so frustrated by then I thought he might start banging his fist on the dash. He just couldn’t believe it would take this long to clear the scene of the accident or at least divert traffic. I couldn’t help but agree this was our capital city and the roads going in being closed for that length of time seemed ridiculous. Take as long as you need to save lives I thought, but by then it seemed the delay was caused by the serious crash investigators examining the scene. I’m not sure exactly what their procedure is, but to us in the car that day it seemed worth questioning and I hope it isn’t another example of the overly officious and cautious country we seem to have become. Valuing process over results. It might be that these sort of delays put more pressure on drivers and cause further accidents: Especially when there is no alternative but to travel by road.

It was nearly 6.30pm when the roads cleared and Shelley had no option but to carry on to Wellington with the next bus due to leave Paraparaumu at 7pm it wouldn’t leave Burt enough time to make the journey across town to the airport.

It seemed to go without saying that their two passengers would also have a ride all the way to the city, and no compensation would be accepted for the journey.

It struck me as exceptionally generous that Shelley and Burt offered rides to two complete strangers at a train station, despite all the stress of their day. It was the kind of casual, understated generosity that we have in this country and we often take for granted. So despite a day of frustration with our public services and transport, let alone the dangers of our roads in evidence that day, what I was reminded about was the kindness of our people, and friendliness to strangers that you just don’t get in many other countries. Let’s never lose that, because I guess in the end that is more important than efficiency and convenience.

It would be nice to have both though. And it goes without saying that the sooner we embrace heavier investment in our roads and public transport the happier and safer we will all be especially at this time of year.


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