The greatest engineering challenge of the 21st Century

The tragic death of 29 coal miners in the Pike River Mine triggered significant reform to our health and safety laws. The deaths of 185 people in the Christchurch earthquake triggered huge political focus on the resilience of our buildings and infrastructure. Water service delivery is about to be stripped from local government after 5,500 people fell ill from the Havelock North water contamination crisis.

Since 1921, New Zealand’s road system has claimed more than 39,000 lives. That’s 400+ people per year on average. Annual roads deaths have also risen for the sixth consecutive year. So, what are we doing about it?

In April I attended the Local Government Road Safety Summit. Reforming our existing approach to road safety was overwhelmingly endorsed by the mayors, elected members and transport officials in attendance.

Vision Zero was introduced as a more ethical approach to mobility by targeting zero deaths on our roads. Instead of trading off mobility for safety, the intent of Vision Zero is to empower our engineers to create a better road system. Since then however, Vision Zero seems to have been consumed into New Zealand’s transport decision-making process, as just another thing to deliver. Similarly the ‘any number is too many’ campaign from Southland and Otago gained significant public momentum, but now seems to have been caught within the wheels of bureaucracy.

Although targeting zero deaths seems ambitious, it isn’t a new idea for engineers. We design airplane cockpits, nuclear systems, operating rooms and treadmills with enough redundancy so that when someone makes a mistake, no one gets hurt. Yet the entrenched method of managing road safety is to only respond once a crash has occurred.

In August of this year, I read that a family had lost a loved one at the intersection of State Highway 8 and the Mt Cook Road (SH80), near Twizel. The community, including the district’s mayor, had repeatedly raised their fears about this intersection. So, with yet another crash, the local community took over ownership of the problem and erected their own warning signage.

This crash stirs internal conflict for me as a public works engineer. Two years prior, I was involved in a project that identified that very same intersection as high-risk and requiring intervention. The intersection was included within a broader plan of other initiatives needed for that corridor. I had followed the ‘process’ and at the time I believed my job was done. Thinking about this crash still stirs an emotional response in me and raises existential questions about my duty of care as a public works engineer.

Whether it is fear of making a bad decision or just a result of too much bureaucracy, it seems that so much of how we deliver transport in New Zealand has become about following a process. Processes are incredibly powerful methods of delivery but have come at the expense of simply doing the right thing.

Engineering is about solving a problem within a set of constraints. The Twizel example shows that life-saving improvements do not necessarily require huge levels of extra investment. Targeting zero deaths on our roads, whilst increasing the rate of human mobility, is nothing less than the greatest engineering challenge of the 21st Century.

First posted on the IPWEA Australasia blog:

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