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A radical, out of favour idea

As reported on Saturday, KiwiRail estimates it will take up to three months to fix the flashing lights and alarm at Norfolk Rd’s railway level crossing, after they were damaged in a collision between a car and train on July 21.

Along with more than 20 railway level crossings in Wairarapa so far [proposals for South Wairarapa are still pending], Norfolk Rd is also earmarked for upgrades to its safety features, including the addition of barriers.

It’s not entirely clear when the barrier installation will take place or why existing safety features will take so long to fix but, whatever the reasons, Carterton District Council chief executive Geoff Hamilton clearly isn’t impressed by the timeframe.

“It’s an exceptionally long time to wait for a repair on a crossing that already lacked barrier arms, and has now had a serious incident,” Hamilton told the Times-Age.

“We hope KiwiRail prioritise these repairs to keep our community safe.”

In the meantime, the state-owned rail operator has received reports that motorists are currently driving through the Norfolk Rd level crossing without slowing down on approach, coming to a complete stop, or – presumably – even bothering to turn their heads to check for oncoming trains. [We can certainly attest to this – reporter Flynn Nicholls saw 12 vehicles blatting through in just 10 minutes on Friday].

A KiwiRail spokesperson has reminded the public that “disobeying a stop sign at a level crossing is dangerous and against the law”.

It’s also bloody dumb – but as has been pointed out before [by US politician and former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura, according to the internet at least], you can’t legislate against stupidity.

Despite that, our government, along with many others around the world, continue to do just that.

There seems to have been a sharp uptick in what’s referred to as “safetyism” in Western-style democracies over recent decades. Few risks are deemed so bleedingly obvious that they don’t require passing a raft of rules and regulations, while at home it’s hard to find a government agency that doesn’t declare that one of the primary reasons for whatever it’s doing is “keeping New Zealanders safe”.

While that’s all well and good, what is seldom acknowledged is that the primary responsibility for keeping New Zealanders safe falls on New Zealanders themselves.

One only has to observe pedestrians stepping out onto busy roads without looking up from their phones to wonder whether this arguably ongoing infantilisation of the population is having the unintended effect of rendering many Kiwis unable to assess their own personal risk, let alone mitigate it.

It’s a hypothesis that finds some support in the philosophy and work of Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman who – in keeping with his belief that drivers become more alert and cautious when there’s more uncertainty on the road – eschewed adding to road design and urban planning and instead favoured removing such features as curbs, traffic signals, and signs [do a web search for “Drachten intersection” for an illuminating example of his ideas in action].

Still, such an approach would involve promoting some degree of personal responsibility, a once commonly accepted concept that for some reason seems to have fallen out of favour.


  1. Mandating the presence of a long spike projecting from car steering wheels, pointing at the driver’s chest, together with banning seat belts, has also been advocated as a way to change reckless driving behaviour. Just imagine!

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