Editorial: Ice and blood on tourist roads

Last updated 14:00 07/07/2012

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OPINION: The word the man used was "treacherous". He didn't say "tricky".

When Mossburn chief fire officer Lance Hellewell said black ice conditions leading up to the latest tourist bus crash on the Mossburn-Te Anau highway were treacherous, he wasn't indulging in overstatement or empty cliche.

Since the word is used so often to describe winter conditions it has perhaps become over-familiar, we better start reminding ourselves what it means.

Especially when we are talking about that godawful ice.

When we hit that stuff, treachery is what we encounter, all right. We are instantly and emphatically betrayed.

In that moment our lifetime's experience and understanding of the way the physical world works no longer holds true.

The loss of traction, of control, is almost unworldly. Even in vehicles that have been turtling along with all due caution, black ice causes slow-motion balletic mishaps that just keep unfolding.

You might have more time to provide a brief, unhappy commentary of alarm or complaint about the unfairness of it all, but otherwise there's not a whole hell of a lot you can do about it.

Those who hit that ice while travelling faster – certainly anything close to conventional cruising speed – are penalised more swiftly and more extravagantly.

None of this should really be a secret to New Zealanders. It's not as though we lack for ample warnings and cautionary tales.

We know black ice can cause calamity for people padding out from their own doorway to the letterbox and back, let alone on open roads.

But black ice is a particularly scary rulebreaker when it forms on our tourist roads, busy with buses.

At least these are – or certainly should be – driven by skilled and seasoned professionals who must surely be required to understand when timetables simply cannot be an imperative.

There's an added danger when tourists are driving themselves in campervans and rentals.

They are so often unused to the narrow, winding nature of our roads and the skills needed to negotiate them. They may also be novices to the keep-left system. And quite often fatigued.

On top of all that, often they are from countries with climates that leave them scantily prepared for the nightmarish complications of black-ice conditions.

In terms of injuries the latest crash, rattling 34 Chinese nationals in a toppled bus, could have been worse. This is liable to be scant comfort to the mother of a seriously injured 9-year-old boy .

Two other crashes happened about that time near Five Rivers. One involved a minibus carrying 10 tourists.

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So what's needed? Our warning system for drivers and passengers, be they tourists, professionals or locals, needs to be not only comprehensive, and as close to unmissable as we can make it, but also far more vivid, more compelling.

We need everybody to understand what it really means when conditions are treacherous. Then to understand that even when conditions aren't, even in the best of weather when the whole place is at its most glorious, ours remains a region where driving needs an abundance of caution.

And travelling time.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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