Tuesday, July 30, 2013

New Zealand: Update--Death Toll in Waitomo Rises as Transport Agency is Slow to Act

According to http://www.tvnz.co.nz, the Transport Agency (NZTA), New Zealand's public road construction and safety organization, seems to have been dragging its feet in terms of focusing on reducing dangerous roadway risks for residents and tourists alike.

Of particular concern is restructuring a particularly dangerous intersection in Waitomo that has claimed a number of lives over the years.

US citizen Jean Stithem, whose honeymooning son, Kenneth Kallan Stithem, 31, died at the intersection of state highways 3 and 37 last September [2012], is frustrated with the time it is taking the agency to reduce life-safety risks in Waitomo.

Ken Stithem died when his rental vehicle collided with a concrete truck. His bride, Kirsten Steinke, received serious injuries and spent months in recovery in both New Zealand and the US.

COMMENT: What Jean Stithem may not realize is that the New Zealand government is often very slow to reduce safety risks, even for their own citizens, let alone foreigners. 

NZTA is saying little about the four proposals, but has previously said consultation would start soon. In actuality, it appears that public hearings on their plan may not occur until August or even September.

The intersection in question is well known to Waitomo residents as an accident hub, which involves a blind corner  intersecting with a state highway where the speed limit is 100kmh (62mph). 

To make matters worse, Waitomo District Mayor Brian Hanna said he was not aware of frustration within the community while at the same time saying that traffic has been diminishing and there have been no accidents, as if to suggest there is no roadway safety issue at the intersection.

Ken Stithem's death followed that of Canadian tourist Michele Smith in an almost identical accident when the campervan she was a passenger in, driven by her husband, Douglas, collided with a truck in February 2012. 

Both deaths came months after NZTA changed the layout of the road, installing a pair of traffic islands which unfamiliar drivers often mistook for a roundabout. 

The speed limit of 100kmh (62mph) was eventually reduced to 70kmh (44mph) after the accident, but Jean Stithem, who has visited the site of her son's death, does not think that is slow enough.

Unfortunately, for the number of accidents that have occurred at the Waitomo intersection in question over the years, NZTA is moving no more swiftly than the large number of tourists who have died in adventure travel "accidents" because of a lack of safety protocols. Please see my postings of: January 3, May 7, May 10, May 11 and May 28, 2013.

I also remind foreign drivers that New Zealanders drive on the "left." Additionally, New Zealand's roadways are among some of the most dangerous in the world, as I've reported over the years.

I discourage foreign visitors accustomed to driving on the "right" from renting cars in Auckland or Wellington upon arrival until they have an opportunity to carefully observe the road patterns and driving risks, as many foreign drivers do have a problem with adapting to the roadways.

If you feel uncomfortable driving on the "left," DON'T DRIVE. It is far safer to take a shuttle or a taxi than to die trying.

Finally, seat belts are required for all occupants and punishments for drinking and driving are rigidly enforced.