At 9.15am on a typical January summer morning, a train tore Zeno Hospenthal's life apart.
When the ute he was a passenger in came to a metal-crunching halt Zeno's sister, Antoinette Hess, was dead, his eight-year-old niece seriously injured and the flesh was stripped from the bone on his lower left arm.
"The funny thing was, that morning there was all sorts of things slowing us down," Mr Hospenthal says during a break from his volunteer work at Hollard Gardens nearly two years later.
"Whatever happened, we were on a rendezvous with that train. It was fate."
It was his fate to survive, his sister's to die at Stratford's notorious Flint Rd rail crossing. Hers was the second of 10 deaths on Taranaki roads in 2011, two fewer than the region's annual average of 12.
That compares poorly with national figures.
Ministry of Transport statistics show New Zealand's road toll last year was the lowest in decades at 284, or about six deaths for every 100,000 people.
Based on that number, Taranaki's 14 deaths so far this year are more than double what could be expected for the region's population. And there are still 30 days left in 2012.
Of those 14 fatalities, four came in November, the latest being just seven days ago when Shawn Daniel Brand, 25, fell asleep at the wheel and rolled his car at the State Highway 3 and Climie Rd intersection.
Just days before that, 83-year-old Eltham identity Don Drabble was killed in a two-car crash near Ngaere on State Highway 3, which was itself less than a week after 26-year-old New Plymouth man Seth Wollston died in a Hawera crash of such horrific momentum that his body had to be cut from his car.
Mr Hospenthal cannot remember his own horror crash, though he is reminded of it each time he must use his teeth to do up his shirt buttons because his left arm is still paralysed.
"Patience is the biggest thing," he says both of getting dressed and driving a car. "You see it so often. You see guys pass in ridiculous places. You think ‘oh God'. It's all go, go, go, everybody is in a rush these days. But why?"
When the sirens go at night, Rahotu Fire Chief Paul Mundt must stifle a grimace. It's probably someone he knows who is in trouble, and booze and speed are often behind the callout.
His first fatal crash more than 15 years ago claimed the lives of three brothers. He stood next to the boys' father while the bodies were laid out on the side of the road.
"What can you say to them? You sort of remember those things for the rest of your life."
In January 2009 there was another night his firemen cannot forget. Just minutes after returning from a crash that killed Irish farm worker Gary Smith, the siren went again. A short drive from the station they found the mangled wreck of another crash and the dead and dying Wayne Peters and Benjamin Taylor, both of whom were well-known to some of Mr Mundt's crew.
"After the last one we had, we had two guys leave. They couldn't cope any more. One of them was a pretty good friend of the guy that died," he says.
"Everybody talks about it for some time after. I'm hopeful, to a point, that they take notice. In many ways you want to take the car, put it in the middle of town and say ‘see what happens'."
Each of those deaths in Taranaki and around the country has a social cost the Ministry of Transport puts at $4.3 million. Each serious injury costs $455,500.
Right now there are 1239 ACC claims for injuries sustained in motor vehicle accidents in Taranaki, with a total cost of $10.4m. That's been the roughly same each year for the past five years.
"People forget police are human," says Hawera Police Senior Sergeant Blair Burnett, who has seen a lion's share of death and waste due to speed, alcohol and inattention during his 20 years as a cop.
"Over time it does sap your strength. One of the things people don't realise is that we too have children, fathers, brothers and sisters and when we're going to pick up the pieces at crashes it's a timely reminder to us that it could be any one of our loved ones that we could be picking up."
The toll on police and other emergency services is recognised now. Counselling is available, accepted, wanted. It's a far cry from when Mr Burnett started, but back then, he says, he didn't think he needed counselling.
"Then I started talking to one and didn't stop for 40 minutes," he says.
"You could talk to police right throughout New Zealand and I am sure they will all tell you stories about people they know having lost their husbands and their wives and their children in motor vehicle accidents. There is some heartbreaking stories.
"I would like there to be no more fatals . . . it's not going to happen."
Deaths aren't the only or even best measure of how safe or unsafe roads are, says Taranaki St John operations manager Ian May. Those injured and not
killed more often than not outnumber the dead but can be more easily forgotten about.
"You could have a weekend with no fatalities but you might have three to four crashes with serious injuries. The crash might not have appeared bad, no one has died, but in actual fact they have sustained an injury that will cause debilitation - in some cases for the rest of their life."
All but one per cent of crashes are caused by driver error, says New Plymouth's Sergeant Stephen Richardson, and drivers in Taranaki get it wrong more than most.
Police records show that in the past two months, for all the crashes in the central district, which includes Palmerston North and Whanganui and extends across to the East Coast, 37 per cent were in Taranaki.
In September, police here launched a two-week campaign which targeted drivers not stopping at state highway intersections. More than 140 tickets were issued with what Mr Richardson said appeared to be little effect.
"In the end it felt like we were just taking their money. They didn't change their behaviour at intersections," he says.
Three days after the blitz ended, a motorcyclist was killed in a collision with a car at the Princess St and SH3 intersection in Waitara, one of Taranaki's most dangerous.
"From Bell Block to Waitara is a killing field. And the impact of these crashes on the family and friends is huge. A lot of them just can't understand why he or she did that, why they pulled on to the road without looking," Mr Richardson says.
"But they get blase, impatient, decide not to take that extra second to look both ways. I don't get it. What is an extra one or two seconds when it's your life."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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