Light at the End of the Tunnel

In Industry Comment, October 202113 MinutesBy Antony AlexanderNovember 3, 2021

I have to give credit where it is due. The past construction season has been productive for Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency in the Hawke’s Bay area, specifically the Napier to Taupo section of SH5.

Over the past two years, I have lobbied NZTA to repair or upgrade specific parts of the road where I had identified areas of tarmac with scabbing, potholes, or which were simply bumpy and, in my opinion, dangerous.

During a ridealong with an NZTA representative, I pointed out multiple spots, including Dillon’s Hill, the Mohaka Bridge (southern approaches), the Titiokura Saddle – where trucks were losing traction in both directions on the southern lanes, plus multiple other areas where the surface was failing. Waka Kotahi had been aware of the faults for many months, but funding wasn’t made available for any repairs beyond those scheduled under the Network Outcome Contracts. To be fair, those were just patch-ups, which were falling apart soon after completion.

Most of the major issues have now been rectified using an asphalt mix rather than chip seal, and so far, they have held up quite well during winter. I certainly haven’t heard many complaints from fellow truck drivers.

Previously, I did not believe a good standard of work was being carried out seeing many works repeated. In one area, at Stoney Creek (east of Tarawera), three weeks were spent digging out the road, re-laying shingle, then resurfacing, only to have it fail within days. This has now been ‘repaired’ using the asphalt mix, although it seems bumpier than it was before the repairs were started.

The same occurred at the Tarawera Hill, where the upper surface of the reseal was so thick, trucks were getting stuck going up the hill within minutes of the new seal being laid. The next day it rained, and the new seal was completely ripped up – it failed in less than 24 hours. Waka Kotahi blamed the weather for the failing and had the section resealed using asphalt. So far, it’s held up well considering the gradient of the climb and the weight of trucks. Also, within the past month, the entrance to Tarawera Café is being redesigned and reconstructed after a fatal crash in October last year.

New barriers are also springing up weekly along the route and the ‘white picket fence’ section on the Titiokura Saddle, a site I have highlighted for some time where a completely substandard fence was the only thing that protected people from going over a cliff, now has a barrier. This is a personal win for me.

Speed as a lever

Many of us who use the road cannot understand the Waka Kotahi’s decision to consider dropping the speed limit for a section extending from Eskdale to Waipunga. Waka Kotahi regional relationships director Emma Speight said the speed limit review on this winding section would aim to save lives and prevent serious injuries from crashes.

While the speed of vehicles in a crash determines injuries, Waka Kotahi, by its own admission, stated that the average speed over the stretch of highway was 81kph, so what really is the point of lowering the limit further, with the resultant impact on travel times?

Initially, it stated travellers would only face a difference of about 41 seconds, a figure it later admitted was wrong, changing it to somewhere between four and 11 minutes. Some calculations by people driving the road every day have been up to 18 minutes. For a linehaul truck driver undertaking a return trip, this represents an extra 40 minutes, possibly more, that must be accounted for in their logbooks – a minimum of 40 minutes added onto an already long day for some. One person I spoke to stated: “It would cut a four-trip day down to three.”

In my opinion, Waka Kotahi is using the Road to Zero mantra to defer critical maintenance and roading upgrades by slowing down traffic. This is evident in multiple areas of the country. It is essentially admitting it doesn’t have the funding or the capability to upgrade, at the same time quietly admitting it knows the road is sadly in need of an upgrade.

In the background, constable Steven Knox from the Hawke’s Bay traffic unit started the campaign Stay Alive On 5, in conjunction with new signs being placed in areas by Waka Kotahi. For the past six months, police have attempted to put at least two patrol cars – a mixture of marked and plain – on SH5 during each shift. Taupo police have also increased their patrolling.

In the nine months since the campaign started, this has generated some good statistics based on both the same period last year and the year before. These patrols have increased proactive policing with over 1300 traffic stops conducted.

Attendance because of complaints by people reporting speed and drunk drivers, for instance, has increased by 155%. Stats like this also have a plus side in terms of crash rates – down 11% and zero fatalities since last October. Police have also noticed that the high-end speeds of more than 30kph above the posted limit are slowly dropping, whereas six months ago, many people were being stopped in that threshold.

People are starting to realise that the campaign was not a one-off. The social cost saving to date with no fatalities alone has been approximately $14.3 million. When the cost of serious injury crashes is factored in, the saving is even higher. I certainly do not believe that this campaign is revenue-gathering, as many people claim when a campaign like this starts. The educational aspects have also focused on those travelling too slowly and holding up traffic.

Global Road Safety Partnership chief executive officer Dave Cliff stated that 70% of New Zealand’s fatal crashes happened on the rural road network. But he failed to acknowledge SH5 was a national state highway, servicing Hawke’s Bay, with approximately 3200 vehicle crossings a day. While stating that a slower speed would bring down the impact of crashes, wouldn’t it also be prudent to advocate for such roads to be upgraded?

Not long after Waka Kotahi advised it wanted to lower the speed limits along parts of the highway, I was at a meeting attended by members of the Hastings District Council (HDC) and several residents from the area. The resounding message from the floor was “no” to the limits being dropped.

HDC stated in a submission that it had real objections to the process adopted by Waka Kotahi and its recommendations and was concerned there was inadequate evidence and/ or analysis to support the proposals. The council was also concerned with the ‘desktop’ nature of the analysis, and the absence of site visits, validations, and assessments.

With observed traffic volumes of over 4000 vehicles per day, and with 20% heavy vehicle representation, any proposed reduction in speed on this route could have significant economic implications for local and national industry.

HDC was concerned that the impacts had not been appropriately nor adequately assessed.


As a road safety advocate, I applaud the improvements that have happened, but it’s not enough. The real improvement will come when Waka Kotahi and whichever government is in power provide funds to complete real remedial works, such as straightening corners and keeping tarmac in good condition consistently. One of the problems I see as a user on the road is that the standard of work differs between contractors. Maybe it’s time for one contractor to be given the funds for proper remedial work and upgrades instead of using speed reduction as a default tool to improve safety.

Furthermore, NZTA needs to investigate some of the real issues around its notification service. People often report problems using the 0800 number advertised on road signs, but NZTA does not pass on those warnings, e.g. high winds, potholes, crashes etc, to its ‘live’ map application.

Recently, after a camper van was blown off the road because of unusually high winds at Te Haroto, the police requested the road be closed for a short time until the winds died down. Not only was this not done, but Waka Kotahi also did not put any warning on the Napier VMS sign until well after the winds had eased. A horse-float driver, who was also nearly tipped over, has since contacted NZTA to get a VMS sign put in place to enable people travelling on the road to see the actual speed of the wind, allowing them to make an informed decision on whether to proceed or not. I have also suggested to NZTA that more VMS signs be placed strategically along the road to enable people to stop or turn around long before encountering a problem, resulting in the need to sit and wait.

There is a lot of work that needs to be done and a lot of work that could be done. Dropping speed limits, in my opinion, is not a single fix. Widening some parts, providing more rest areas, extra policing, and a better road surface are equally critical.

In saying that, Waka Kotahi has committed to undertake a business case study with the view to secure a $100 million safety upgrade and has recently earmarked $214 million for state highways and local roads in the Hawke’s Bay region.

The light at the end of the tunnel may not be an oncoming train.

Antony Alexander was an Air Force Police NCO, NZ Police dispatcher, and qualified in crash analysis in 1997 with the NZ Police. He is now driving trucks as a passion.