Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Karl du Fresne: Traffic cones and the precautionary principle

Driving between Eketahuna and Masterton recently, I came across some road works.
The road was reduced to one lane each way. There were the usual Stop/Go controls at either end, but this time there was a new twist.

I was at the head of a queue that was stopped at one end. A line of vehicles coming the other way was led through by a white ute with flashing lights.

As they reached my end of the road works, the ute pulled over to the verge. Then it did a U-turn and positioned itself at the head of the line of traffic waiting to go the other way.

On the back of the ute there was a sign saying “Please follow me”. Needless to say, I was pathetically grateful for this guidance because otherwise I would have had no clue where to go.

I’m being facetious, of course. The section of road works was only a few hundred metres long. There was nowhere else for me to go but forward. There were no side-roads that I might have inadvertently veered off onto, and therefore no risk that I and the cars behind me might have ended up hopelessly lost somewhere in the back of beyond.

So I wonder, what genius decided that I and my fellow drivers needed to be escorted by a ute with flashing lights through routine (i.e. non-hazardous) road works that we were perfectly capable of navigating without assistance?

Incidentally, there was a man in a hi-vis vest sitting in the ute’s passenger seat. For what purpose, exactly? Perhaps he was there to ensure the driver didn’t take a wrong turn himself, or – far more likely, given the tedium of their duties – fall asleep.

In other words, two men doing two non-jobs – guiding other vehicles through road works that generations of New Zealand drivers have miraculously coped with in the past without risk to life and limb.

Here was one of the great cons of the 21st century, the cult of traffic management, carried to new levels of absurdity. Some inventive pooh-bah in Worksafe (sorry, Mahi Haumaru Aotearoa) had found yet another way to waste public money, needlessly inflate the cost of highway maintenance and pad out an already bloated and largely superfluous industry.

Auckland mayor Wayne Brown recently highlighted the scale of this racket, revealing that Auckland Council and its associated bureaucracies spend an astonishing $145 million a year on traffic management. And that’s not counting the money spent by private companies such as Vector, which says traffic management costs it $30 million a year.

Factor in wasted time and needless disruption, and you have an even bigger economic cost to the country.

Brown has shrewdly zeroed in on a 21st century phenomenon that causes millions of New Zealanders to burn with frustration and resentment. No one can drive anywhere and not be aware of the scale of the traffic management fetish.

It’s attested to by vast forests of road cones – frequently arranged in complex configurations that seem more likely to cause accidents than prevent them – and by patently absurd speed restrictions, often where no road works are in progress or have long since ceased.

Perhaps the most ostentatious symbols of the traffic management cult are the big trucks with flashing arrows that appear to be mandatory even for jobs as routine as mowing grass verges. The occupants of these vehicles seem to spend most of their time looking at YouTube videos on their phones.

I’ve observed situations where one man driving a tractor mower – i.e. the solitary bloke actually doing real work – has been protected not by one, not by two, not by three but by four accompanying safety vehicles with flashing lights and arrows.

In many instances, as in the recent case of my escort vehicle, there are two men in the cab. The passengers seem to be there for no other reason than to keep the drivers company.

It’s astonishing to think that New Zealand’s highway network was built without any of this palaver. What changed to suddenly make it necessary? Did I miss a swathe of news stories about road workers being killed and maimed by careless motorists?

The emphasis on safety would be more tolerable if visible progress was being made on the projects that these elaborate precautions are supposed to facilitate, but the NZ Transport Agency has a woeful record for getting jobs done on time and within budget.

I can’t count the number of years NZTA has been upgrading a relatively small stretch of State Highway 58 between the Hutt Valley and Porirua. Bizarrely, even on the sections where work has been completed and the road is now wide, smooth and safe, a speed limit of 50kmh is still in force. Most motorists sensibly ignore it.

The traffic management cult is itself an outgrowth of a longer-established cult, the cult of health and safety. Both proceed from the assumption that most New Zealanders are imbeciles who can’t be trusted to make sensible decisions for themselves and must therefore be protected by ever-proliferating rules and regulations, the economic costs of which are incalculable.

Both also reflect a mindset that has become embedded in the bureaucracy and largely goes unchallenged by the politicians who are nominally in charge. I’m referring to something called the precautionary principle, which holds that every theoretical risk – and I stress theoretical –must be mitigated by appropriate safeguards, often without regard for sensible cost vs. benefit assessments.

I wonder what proportion of the national roading budget is consumed by traffic safety management. My guess is that the amount must have increased exponentially over the past couple of decades.

Perhaps more to the point, has anyone calculated the cost of traffic safety management against deaths and injuries avoided as a result? I doubt it. Someone has got very rich providing services that for the most part are not needed.

Evidence of the precautionary principle is everywhere. Yet ironically, and tragically, the principle isn’t always followed where the need for it is obvious and urgent – as in the case of Whakaari/White Island, where Worksafe stood aside for years, apparently happy to allow tourists onto a high-risk active volcano, then had the gall to prosecute tourism operators and even rescuers after an entirely predictable 2019 eruption caused 22 deaths. In a breathtaking act of self-exoneration, Worksafe let itself off the hook.

The precautionary principle appeals to the bureaucratic psyche because it provides an excuse for every control freak’s dream: the perpetual expansion of an oppressive and intrusive state apparatus that’s constantly looking for new ways to exercise power over people’s daily lives. And for the most part we obligingly comply because we are essentially passive people, programmed to submit to authority. We may mutter with resentment and metaphorically shake our fists, but ultimately we fall into line. The bureaucrats know this, so are free to proceed with impunity.

Examples of the precautionary principle are everywhere. A few examples:

■ Children’s playground equipment – for example, swings and old tractors that have entertained kids for decades – being declared unsafe because of the theoretical risk of an accident. How many children were killed or maimed playing on them? Good question.

■ Compulsory scaffolding for even the most routine housing construction and maintenance jobs. It has made scaffolders rich, but has anyone bothered to measure the accidents prevented against the additional costs imposed?

■ Increasingly restrictive limitations on who can donate blood. I wonder how many prospective donors have been put off because the rules kept being tightened. It certainly strikes many people as ridiculous that they still can’t give blood if they spent six months or more in Britain between 1980 and 1996, and hence were theoretically exposed to mad cow disease.

■ Airport security screening. Admittedly, this is a biggie. Most travellers put up with the inconvenience, indignity, delay and legalised bullying because they’ve been convinced it’s essential for their safety. But if terrorists wanted to attract worldwide attention by killing a lot of people in one hit, they could do it on a provincial flight (no security checks) or even a suburban bus. Could it be time for a rethink?

■ Nitpicking employment rules that discourage initiative and even basic compassion – as in the case of a rest home employee who was sacked for operating a hoist by herself, against the rules, when a desperate patient in a wheelchair needed to go to the toilet and there was no one available to help. (The Employment Relations Authority, to its credit, held that she was unjustifiably dismissed and ordered that compensation be paid.)

■ Small-scale makers and sellers of cheese and raw milk being hounded by bureaucrats with demands for risk management plans, testing fees and hygiene compliance rules that drive them out of business.

■ The Covid lockdown. Say no more.

■ Worm farms and cat breeding being classified in health and safety legislation as “high risk”. The same legislation rated mini-golf as more dangerous than the actual sport and putting up curtains as more hazardous than demolishing buildings, thus providing a rare insight into the Alice in Wonderland mentality of the health and safety cultists. (Note: while checking this, I stumbled across a document entitled “Health and Safety Guide for Community Gardens – Worm Farm Risk Assessment”. It ran to six pages and included such hazards as sunlight and dehydration. Just to be clear, these were presented as risks for humans, not the worms. I rest my case.)

■ Page after page of safety instructions – e.g. please do not use this hair dryer while you are submerged in the bath – with every electrical appliance purchased. (Okay, the hair dryer example is a slight exaggeration – but only a slight one.)

These are just a few examples off the top of my head. I’m sure readers can think of others.

Interestingly, even people on the Left – normally the most eager to impose controls on their fellow citizens – are starting to rebel against the dead weight of all-controlling Big Government and its inevitable tendency to deter individual initiative. Can anyone guess who said the following after Auckland bureaucrats were caught napping by the disastrous late January floods?

“I can’t begin to fathom what was going through their [Auckland Council’s] heads, but I’ve definitely seen over the past few years that we have continued to build out our bureaucracies at every single level of Government to effectively be super risk-averse.

“And being super risk-averse when we are facing the greatest kind of flooding and crises that any of us have in our lifetimes here in Tāmaki Makaurau at this scale didn’t benefit anyone.”

Waddya know: that was Chloe Swarbrick, whose party probably holds the world record for the number of control freaks per square metre. The aversity to risk that she criticises is what underpins the precautionary principle.

Then there was this commentator, writing about the book The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighbourhoods by John McKnight and Peter Block: “These writers warn us of the dangers of the dependency that results from governments fixing our problems for us; robbing us of our capacity to problem-solve, and reducing our ability to build resilience. And that is something we are going to need in spades as we confront the challenges we know are coming our way.”

That was former Christchurch mayor and Labour cabinet minister Lianne Dalziel, writing in Newsroom in January. She went on to talk about the need to empower citizens to solve their own problems rather than rely on the government.

When even people like Swarbrick and Dalziel are sounding the alarm about bureaucracies stifling initiative and resilience, perhaps the message is getting through that New Zealanders don’t need to be infantilised by governments that insist on wiping their noses and their bottoms for them.

But back to traffic and roads. Nowhere are the loony excesses of the precautionary principle currently more evident than in the Wairarapa, where the NZTA has imposed an 80 kmh speed limit all the way from Masterton to Featherston in place of the previous standard 100 kmh.

No rational case has been made for this. The NZTA is doing it because it can. It’s an agency that’s out of control and answerable to no one.

The 36 km stretch of road between Masterton and Featherston is entirely flat and mostly straight and wide. In the 13 kilometres between Greytown and Featherston there are only two bends. There can be few straighter or safer stretches of highway in the country.

According to the Wairarapa Times-Age, citing figures obtained under the OIA, there have been 10 fatal crashes on the Masterton-Featherston section of State Highway 2 in the past 22 years. But get this: speed was a factor in only one – that’s right, one – of those deaths. Of 43 crashes that were rated as serious, speed was a factor in only nine.

On this flimsy basis, NZTA has imposed a speed limit that will unnecessarily add time and expense to the journeys of everyone – commercial transport operators as well as private motorists – driving through the Wairarapa. A local commercial real estate agent, Chris Gollins, has pointed out that the additional travel time will serve as a disincentive to anyone thinking of moving to the region or setting up a new business there. Does NZTA care? Of course not. Not their problem.

The NZTA staged a pretend public consultation process but ignored the hundreds of submissions opposing the new limit. Now the heat is on local MP Kieran McAnulty, who after initially pooh-poohing NZTA’s plan then seemed to change his mind but now, observing the public backlash, has executed a second U-turn.

NZTA’s argument is that the 80 kmh limit will make the road safer. But by that reasoning, a 50 kmh limit would be safer still.

In any case, will the road be made safer? I predict that if anything, the new limit will have the reverse effect. Law-abiding drivers will conscientiously comply, even if they think it’s absurd. But others, chafing with impatience at being delayed where there’s no obvious reason for it, will pull out to overtake and risk hitting someone coming the other way.

In other words, expect the law of unintended consequences to kick in – as it so often does when bureaucrats make decisions that defy common sense.

And lest readers think this is purely a local issue, consider this: if the NZTA gets away with it in the Wairarapa, it will try it elsewhere. There’s nothing surer.

Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at


Anonymous said...

All government agencies are outta control, pissed on power and arrogant in the extreme. Keiran McAnulty is another Jacinda/Chippy sycophant with an ambition to be Chief Weasel.
All agencies have made life in general worse for most NZer's and corruption is rife. Their days of reckoning are coming and not soon enough.

Anonymous said...

The cones are bad but the other very annoying and now ubiquitous ideocracy is the infernal speed hump. Why do we need to put up with this utter rubbish? We have speed limits on the roads they are humping so why can't the speed limits be enforced?
Because how we got the speed humps goes like this. NZTA decided to do Road to Zero so had to think of ways to spend millions of dollars on that goal. They felt vulnerable and lonely so they co-opted local bodies/territorial authorities by throwing some of the millions at them and directing them to find their trouble spots and mitigate them. This was an impossible task as they didn't have many obvious problem areas. So they all spent the money on speed humps to calm the traffic. In one stretch of road less than 500 metres long, there are 4 speed humps and a raised pedestrian crossing. Every day I would see vehicles, in different cities, crossing the centre line into oncoming traffic to avoid the humps. I can assure you that does not calm the traffic or even one driver. Of course there is no reason, rationale or evaluation for the effectiveness of the millions of dollars wasted.

Anonymous said...

A few years ago, after public consultation which delivered a near unanimous decision that the old 100k speed limit was preferable to the ridiculous 80k trial that had just been run on State Hwy 6 between Blenheim and Nelson, the powers that be brought in the 80k speed limit permanently.
The very week the enhanced safety touted speed limit was introduced permanently an ungrateful driver spun out and crashed into a sign on the way into Havelock, setting fire to the paddock around him (No prizes for guessing what was reported about this in the local paper). The police, the ambulance and the fire brigade duly attended. Only a few weeks ago the soporific speed limit near here put an elderly driver to sleep and she careened off the road and into the swamp ( sorry, the Wetland) narrowly missing the nest of banded rail.
The vast majority of crashes on this road are single vehicle - people not driving to the conditions. No amount of restrictive limits will change that but many commuters have be negatively affected by the arbitrary and costly speed brake. A surprising number however don’t mind the enforced doddle, justifying for the government with the inane reponse that it’s only a few minutes lost for a good cause. They don’t seem to understand that this is the thin edge of a very thick wedge. I ask those people, at what speed limit, will you object? Because you can guarantee that speed limit will be here sooner than you expect.
I don’t, and never have, bought this as a road safety argument. I believe it is more about creating yet another back door to cutting our emissions for the world stage and, as such, you are dead right - this drive (excuse the pun) is not going to stop at 80. Next it will be 70. Then 60. To quote our Rachel’s classic pantene promise: it won’t happen overnight, but it will happen. And we’d better believe it.

Unknown said...

You hit many nails on the head in this article.
One you may like was the jar of peanut butter i purchased the other day,
There for all to see was the dire warning--May contain nuts...

hughvane said...

I think you may find Karl that the Pied Piper ute was used first about 25+ years ago. I for one encountered them when driving over the upgraded Arthurs Pass-Otira road, also in Sth Canterbury and Nth Otago. The aim then was to slow motorists who ignored speed restrictions over repaired sections of road, and to protect road workers from flying stones - a genuine risk. Personally, I thought it was a most practical tactic.

I agree with you however that bureaucratic involvement in road management has grown out of all proportion to its actual achievements. Perhaps we could rally the troops to pester Mr Luxon or Mr Seymour and their Bands of Merry Followers to demand a reduction in the contractual excesses of those who claim to be keeping us safe on our roads. NZTA, the Canoe with Wheels, is a waste of just about everything, as is expecting anything realistic from Mr Wood.

robert Arthur said...

Anonymous 9.23 mentions speed bumps. These make a mockery of emissions considerations, both CO2 and toxic. Huge energy (CO2) is used in construction and when the raod is resealed all dismantled and rebuilt.Primarily just another sinecure for contractors)

OL said...

as in the case of Whakaari/White Island, where Worksafe stood aside for years, apparently happy to allow tourists onto a high-risk active volcano,

Something mother warned me about as a child. So I was pretty dumbfounded to hear people were actually on the Island having a good look. They weren't to know the dangers.

Now the greens can't talk Chloe Swarbrick. Not too good on the finer points of work safety after a tragic incidence of a helicopter and Tahr culling. With a pair of coveralls escaping and into the rotor blade. Another awful tragedy that need not have happened if they knew the rules. If the doors are off there can not be anything in the cabin that is loose. The doors shouldn't really be off but they needed to get a good shot.

Look there's so many needless deaths that this govt. has had some part to play but swept under the carpet.

Must I mention the existing gun laws that JA was warned about the loophole for automatic riffles used by Mozad trained shooter with Ukraine NAZI symbol to boot.

How about mandated Vaccines? So much for kind and caring.

I'm sure readers could add their stories.

But they ran rough shod over all involved over the Pike River mine tragedy. Shameless.

Wellshaw said...

Thrilled that this subject is being publicised. If only MSM would publish it. “Health and safety gone mad” enrages me. Cones, scaffolding and low road building productivity. On a recent trip to Netherlands, Belgium and France we observed how they organise safety around roading projects –much like how we used to do it, in a sane cost effective manner.
I too have seen 4 trucks protecting the mower man on the grass strip on State Hwy 2 at Lower Hutt. Three large trucks travelling behind as well as a Ute up the road warning of “danger ahead” (7 blokes protecting 1 actual worker).
Also, along State Hwy 2, workers on the new cycle pathway between Maungaraki interchange and Petone Station can feel absolutely safe from wayward cars. They are protected not only by the standard steel roadside safety barrier but much more importantly by the rows of cones on both sides of the barrier. Who plans this madness??
I too am appalled by Highway 58 reconstruction inconvenience. It must be 3 years and still not finished.

Doug Longmire said...

Last year we had a holiday in Nelson. Because the road through Havelock was closed we had to drive from Picton via Blenheim and St Aunard to Nelson - the long way.
Well, of course, we saw all these multiple 80K shiny new signs on the road all the way. Most traffic was ignoring them and travelling at about 90k plus.

Returning home to Palmy Nth, we took a drive down to Wgtn to catch up with family. We went down SH1.
you guessed it !! All these new 80k signs all the way. I counted (from memory) 15 or more in a 2 hour drive.

Truly - this has all the appearance of a dummy run on controlling the populace in a 2023 dictatorship along the lines of Cuba, circa 1965 !!

Anonymous said...

I was recently told that cones are charged out individually on a daily rate by some road safety contractors; hence why we often see them still in situ days after jobs are completed. Some people are making a fortune from this industry - great when millions can probably be spent unnecessarily on Safety with very little or no accountability to the rate or tax payer.

Murray said...

The anonymous info on humps only gave half the story. How can these abominations be legal? My gripe with these abominations is the potential they possess to damage my car if I drive over them within the legal speed limit applying on the road housing them. Have you watched the progress of traffic down your street? Motorists will be in constant fluctuation between breaking, accelerating, breaking … Very few will proceed at a snail’s pace all the way.
Some humps that had been laid relatively close to pedestrian crossings have been scraped off the road and used to lift the crossings themselves. The illogical reasoning for the latest venture is to relocate the upswing part of the speed fluctuation away from the crossing. Inertia and reaction time work against this looked-for gain. So now we are coping with all that just at the moment we need to be on full alert.
And, if all that wasn’t enough; driving at night in streets marred by convexities and chicanes while oncoming traffic automatically and inadvertently flash their headlights up and down as each set of front wheels ascends the bumps. Lights politely and safely set at dip, suddenly on high-beam.

Deirdre said...

Another indication that we drivers are not trusted to think; is the (almost?) total disappearance of "uncontrolled" intersections. We used to be able to sensibly follow and obey the rules requiring us to give way to traffic on our right etc. Now EVERY intersection has a Give-Way sign, a Stop sign or both.

Anonymous said...

Yep, the speed hump is the new scourge on our roads. I live in a small suburb in Auckland, and we've had more than 25 of these speed humps strewn around the place at the cost of over $1m. I asked, under an OIA request, for stats on fatal accidents between pedestrians, cycles and vehicles over the previous six years, and there had been none; in fact, there were merely four incidents considered serious pedestrian v motor vehicle in that six years. Obviously any incident is unfortunate, but 25 speed humps 'just in case' is, quite simply, ridiculous.

Don said...

Beware of road cones. Recently I was confronted by one that had blown onto its side on a tight turn I was just completing and with no time to stop or avoid it struck it thereby making a sizeable crack and dent on my left front and narrowly missing the left headlamp. Our windy road to Eastbourne is having a cycle track extended over the seaward side requiring a multitude of workers
(most of whom seem to just stand about) and dozens and dozens of road cones.
This $80 million project is set to take several years and will satisfy a tiny percentage of the population. No wonder our rates are facing an increase of nearly 10%.

Anonymous said...

Yes - they simply want us all off the roads - currently voluntarily so. Far too much freedom for us.

Peter van der Stam, Napier said...

My simple answer to this is:
Some desk dweller, pen pusher or desk jocky found out, that he/she has NOT produced anything during the last year on a very high salary and found suddenly a new ( wasteful ) rule.
BINGO. money gone.
Cheers, have another one.

Anonymous said...

Speed humps.
Of course they are very needed.
Especially if you live very close to one.
Vehicles slowing down and then speeding up with the associated noise.
Just great.
My granddaughter,18 years if age, is just trying them out how fast she can get over them.