Harsh highway's heavy toll

ANNA BRADLEY-SMITH AND HEATHER SIMPSON
Last updated 12:58 07/07/2014
truck and trailer tipped over
MARION VAN DIJK/FAIRFAX NZ

TIPPING POINT: Senior Constable Scott Johnston at the scene where a truck and trailer tipped over on State Highway 6 on the Whangamoa Saddle as it travelled from Nelson towards Blenheim in April.

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There have been two fatal crashes and 11 serious injury crashes on State Highway 6 between Hira and Rai Valley over the past five years. Anna Bradley-Smith and Heather Simpson look at the issues.

In the instant he had to grasp what was happening, Duane Black saw the look of horror on the face of the driver who was hurtling towards his truck.

Black, a driver for Waimea Contract Carriers, was carrying logs near Rai Valley when a car crossed the centre line on a tight corner.He gripped his steering wheel tight and hit the brakes.

''The one thing I really do remember was the look on that lady's face. There was a look of horror ... a total inability to do anything about it.''

The woman's car slid sideways into the cab of his truck. Black said if it had been a second later the car would have smashed into the gap between cab and trailer with tragic results.

''It would've been fatal, not could have been,'' he said. ''I didn't expect to find her alive. I wouldn't wish that on anybody.''

The 67-year-old woman had to be cut out of her wrecked car, and he later heard she suffered broken arms and vertebrae.

He said the accident on April 16 was his first and happened so quickly he barely had time to take it in.''

People have said it must have been scary, but there was no time for that.'' The accident was one of many on the narrow, winding stretches of State Highway 6 - including the Whangamoa and Rai saddles - that provides a vital heavy transport route for a region that has no rail link.

During the past five years there have been two fatal crashes and 11 serious injury crashes on the highway between Hira and Rai Valley. Seven of those crashes have involved motorcyclists.

No specific figures for crashes involving trucks in the Whangamoa-Rai area are available, but Fairfax stories document 12 such accidents in the past three years.Five of those accidents involved other vehicles and the others were trucks rolling or coming off the road.

 

Nationally, the number of truck accidents has reduced significantly in the last two decades but they still make up 14 per cent of the national road toll, while trucks only account for 6 per cent of the total distance travelled on New Zealand roads, according to New Zealand Transport Agency data.

The data showed that trucks made up 14.5 per cent of vehicles on State Highway 6 last year.Sergeant Terry Richardson, of the Nelson Highway Patrol, said the top of the south region had some of the worst roads in the country that were not suited for any vehicle, let alone trucks.He thought any improvement to the roads would be positive.

But he said if the issue is boiled down the main point is that people must drive to the conditions.''Ninety-nine per cent  of crashes are caused by somebody making a mistake.''

He said over the past three years the heavy motor vehicle accidents he had seen on the road between Nelson and Blenheim had predominantly been due to driver error.  He said despite this the treacherous stretch could do with more work so people could read the road better and truck drivers could have a more economical fuel usage.

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''I've been policing since 1975 and I've seen all the improvements but we can always do with more.''Any improvement would be positive.''

Labour's spokeswoman for transport safety Darien Fenton is pushing for a multimillion-dollar boost to improve rural road safety, particularly for heavy vehicles.

She said money would help regional councils that had long been underfunded to invest in rural roads, but they were not the only factor in truck accidents.

''There are a lot of problems in the industry; a lack of New Zealand drivers, an aging workforce and increasing pressures on the contractors from suppliers. The supply chain is squeezing contractors.''

She said this led to a workforce that was underpaid and over-worked.Black said his company was proactive in educating and looking after drivers and were good to work for, but he could not speak on behalf of all drivers.

Blenheim's Town and Around Freight and Salvage owner Neil Jorgensen said road users weren't driving to the road conditions.

''The road is a bit rough,'' Jorgensen said. ''There is no rail connection to Nelson so there are a lot of trucks on that road which increases the risk of accidents dramatically.''

Trucks are getting bigger. In my experience some people think a 40-foot truck can stop instantaneously and they take half a second to overtake. It takes quite a bit longer.

 ''There are those that don't know the road very well and that's a recipe for disaster. Many that drive 100kmh in the North Island come and do the same on our rubbish roads in the South Island. Many don't drive to the conditions.''

Renwick Transport owner Ian Higgins said the Collins Valley area had proved challenging.It would be difficult to improve the road and would cost millions, Higgins said.

''The key message is driving to the road conditions, both for truck drivers and other road users. Road users need to travel slower, leave a bigger gap between vehicles and don't overtake on corners or dangerous stretches of road.''

Daily, up to seven trucks from Renwick Transport make the journey from Blenheim to Nelson and traffic on the road was increasing, Higgins said.

''The more vehicles on the road the more likelihood of something going wrong.''  

He didn't believe truck drivers were ''pushing it'' to get to jobs quickly and said it had been drilled into truck drivers to drive safely and pull over for traffic.  Road Transport Forum chief executive Ken Shirley said the vast majority of vehicle accidents, including those on State Highway 6, were caused by inattention, speed and fatigue.

''All crashes are human error but most crashes are where errors are made where the asset is less forgiving.Shirley said this government had made the biggest contribution to improving roads in decades, but there would always be scope for more.

NZTA acting highways manager for Nelson Mark Owen said incremental improvements to the route would create the biggest safety benefits, not big ticket projects.

More than $2 million had been spent on the road over the last three years and there are plans for more work along the stretch.  

It would include new passing opportunities between Rai Valley and Renwick and would examine curve realignment to make the Rai Saddle easier to negotiate.  Truck driver Black thought there is some need for work on ''dodgy corners'', but he said the number of truck accidents on the stretch was really down to drivers.

''In our job we see people doing heaps of dumb stuff, overtaking on corners, trying to pass trucks on bad stretches.

''Some people don't realise we're not as agile as their cars.''But people often can't wait - things to do, places to be.''

He agreed that passing opportunities on the road were few and far between and this lead to frustration in a lot of drivers.

''If the road was better, even with the stupidity of drivers, you'd eliminate some of the accidents.''

- The Nelson Mail

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