Friday, December 13, 2019

A country where too many avoidable accidents happen

(First published in The Dominion Post and on, December 12.)

She’ll be right. It’s almost the national motto. But in the aftermath of the Whakaari/White Island catastrophe, perhaps we should ask whether we’re just a bit too blasé about the acceptance of risk.

We go through national paroxysms of self-reproach after a tragic event – witness Pike River, the Christchurch earthquakes, Cave Creek – yet we seem to make the same basic mistake over and over again.

We’re world leaders at flaying ourselves after disaster has struck, but we never seem to see it coming.

The reputational damage done as a result of this latest tragedy will not be quickly repaired. Most of the victims are overseas tourists, and international media outlets are asking, inevitably, why people were encouraged to visit the crater of an active volcano whose risk assessment had only recently been revised upwards.

Many of those killed when the structurally unsound CTV building collapsed in the 2011 Christchurch quake were from overseas too, as were several of the skydivers who died when a plane plummeted into the ground at Fox Glacier in 2010.

The world also heard about the Mangatepopo canyoning tragedy (six dead) and the Carterton hot air balloon that crashed, killing 11 people, while under the control of a dope-smoking pilot. Put all this together, and New Zealand starts to look like a place where too many avoidable accidents happen.

This casual approach to danger in profitable tourist activities stands in striking contrast to the obsessive and costly enforcement of petty, nitpicking health and safety regulations in areas of daily life where the risk of injury is minimal.

We may have narrowly missed one more tragedy when an unstable cliff collapsed on the coastal route to Cape Kidnappers earlier this year, injuring a Korean couple who were forced into the sea. It was surely pure luck that the cliff didn’t come down while a tractor-drawn trailer-load of tourists was passing beneath it.

The Cape Kidnappers excursion is understandably popular with foreign visitors. Part of its charm is that it’s unmistakeably Kiwi in its laidback, No 8-wire approach and the quirky humour of its guides. I imagine the Whakaari/White Island tour has something of the same character.

Tens of thousands of people have visited the island and returned to the mainland feeling nothing but exhilaration, but the question must be asked: Did that lead to a culture of complacency and a downplaying of the risk inherent in visiting an active volcano?

Visitors to Whakaari were apparently given a safety briefing. But knowing it was a routine procedure, experienced by thousands of other tourists before them, they may have regarded it in much the same offhand manner as conference attendees treat announcements about the location of the toilets and emergency exits.

One report suggested that more emphasis was placed on the risk of seasickness on the boat trip to the island than on the possibility of fatal burns and damage to internal organs from toxic gas and ash.

Gas masks and hard hats were handed out, but tourists could have been excused for viewing them as being akin to theatrical props. They might well have reasoned that if the island was so hazardous that they might actually need protective gear, the authorities wouldn’t have allowed people to go there in the first place. 

We now know, of course, that the masks and helmets were hopelessly inadequate.  

Hard questions will need to be asked not only of the tour operators, but of the cruise ship company that touted the Whakaari/White Island visit as a suitable day’s outing for its passengers.

The named victims included a British woman aged 80 and two Australian men aged 78 and 79. Really? What chance did they have of running for safety in an emergency?

The police haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory either. Not only were their attempts at communication shambolic and ineffectual, but they succeeded in creating the distinct impression that if matters had been left to them, the death toll might have been far higher.

It was only due to the heroic actions of volunteers, acting on their own gumption and courage, that more lives weren’t lost. As it was, many New Zealanders would have been greatly troubled by the possibility that victims may have been left to die after rescuers had to retreat.

What of the politicians, then? National Party leader Simon Bridges and the Mayor of Whakatane gave virtuoso demonstrations of tone-deafness by saying they hoped visits to the volcano would eventually resume. I couldn’t help thinking of Jaws, in which news of a killer shark is played down so as to not to affect tourism revenue.

Then there was Jacinda Ardern, who made a valiant effort to strike the same heartfelt tone of compassion that won her worldwide praise after the Christchurch mosque massacres.

To victims and their families, she said: "You are forever linked to our nation and we will hold you close." Doubtless her words were sincerely meant, but they didn't have quite the same force second time around - perhaps because while no one could have foreseen the events of March 15, this week's tragedy could have been avoided.


Dan said...

I've long thought that "She'll be right" was fine, as long as one has at least a modicum of common sense, and a reasonable grasp of the forces in play.
It seems, however, that we're all becoming dumber.
Over time, the burgeoning processes, legislation, bureaucracy, and initiatives around health & safety appear to have only insulated us and removed from us the means of developing sound common sense, and an ability to assess and appreciate risk.

Take for example the automobile.
These new-fangled systems - ABS, ESP, torque vectoring, automatic braking, lidar, etc - don't change the laws of physics.
That line, the edge, is still where it has always been; cross it, and you'll come a cropper. Driver-assist systems don't move that line, they simply allow us to get closer to it.
And from time-to-time, people will cross the line, so really all these systems serve to do is prevent us from feeling where the edge is, and developing that sense of awareness of the forces of physics at play, making us dumb, desensitised drivers.

Whenever things might possibly turn pear-shaped, it doesn't matter that you've followed the letter of the law, completed the appropriate forms, obtained authorisation, and have the certificate hanging on your wall; if you don't have common sense and a true appreciation for the present risks, then you should get the heck out of there, be it a volcano, a building site, a river, or a driver's seat.

Hilary Taylor said...

Well said Karl, & Dan. I heard an anecdote on the radio about a family who had won a White Is trip in a raffle. On arriving the parents looked at each other and said 'what the hell are we doing bringing our children HERE?!'

Odysseus said...

Excellent comment Karl. I believe the problem is that in New Zealand no one is ever responsible and no one is ever held accountable. Perhaps it is an attitude that arises from more than 40 years of the no-fault ACC regime. But it is clearly inadequate, practically and morally. White Island seems to present a bizarre set of overlapping "management" roles which needs to be a focus of the ensuing inquiry. I think if a single agency like DOC had been in charge things might well have been very different and a horrifying tragedy avoided.

Andy Espersen said...

Karl - where do we stop? It is, of course, 100% certain that making daily tourist excursions to the inside of an active volcano that exhibits completely unpredictable, sudden eruptions three or four times every decade (like White Island) will eventually cause fatalities. But so will allowing people to settle, to buy homes and raise innocent children in the volcanic triangle, Taupo - Whakatane - Tauranga. This whole area is in fact an active volcano. the most dangerous volcanic area in the world. It is almost a certainty that within 100 years we will see multiple fatalities, quite likely thousands, somewhere in this area. Should people be allowed to live there? Should we be able to pass legislation which makes it illegal to settle there? We have passed legislation in New Zealand which obliges free citizens to obey directives whether to remain in or leave your home, namely civil defence legislation (which I personally may elect to disobey). Where must we draw the line where to interfere with an individual citizen's personal freedom?

Vaughan said...

Often when you advise somebody that something is dangerous they dismiss the warning, especially if the danger is not immediately visible.

There is a Malay saying that danger does not have a smell, the meaning being that often danger does not advertise by smell or any other way to say it is coming. It arrives without warning.

NZ has had slack laws about this volcano.

Its gun laws were outrageously late and reform came about two decades behind Australia.

When the no fault compensation was brought in, there was a warning that a culture of laxity would emerge.

Yes, there were obvious advantages in the new compensation scheme. But there were dangers too. And, as is often the case, they were dismissed, with the claim that regular government inspections and fines for breaches of safety would solve the problem. Nope.

Simon Cohen said...

Of course many of these comments are made with the benefit of hindsight which is always 100% accurate.And the anecdote about the raffle winners I would confidently bet is an urban myth.
The real question is what is an acceptable risk.My family along with thousands of others were skiing on Mt Ruapehu when it erupted a few years ago.
Potentially here was a situation which very easily resulted in hundreds of deaths.
But are we to ban people from Mt Ruapehu.
I have been told that Mt Ngaurahoe is probably our most dangerous volcano.
Do you suggest we close the walkway across it which is used by thousands of people.Likewise Mt Tongariro.
Mount Ontake in Japan erupted in 2014 killing 63 tourists [or visitors]who were on the mountain.Nowhere can I find any reports of the hand wringing or self flagellation in Japan that have taken place here.
I hate to say it Karl because generally I find your comments sensible but you seem to have succumbed to the mass hysteria so common in NZ at times like this.
But my real concern is that the Australian Govt has not issued a health and safety warning for foreigners not to visit the East Coast of Australia because of the fires and pollution !!!!

Karl du Fresne said...

I've been accused of lots of things, but succumbing to mass hysteria is a new one. I console myself with the knowledge that several vulcanologists who can't understand why tourists were allowed on Whakaari/White Island have apparently been afflicted with the same condition.
It seems to me there's one obvious difference between Whakaari and the examples you mention. At Whakaari, tourists walk right to the edge of the crater of our most active volcano. That seems to allow zero scope for escape in the event of a sudden, unforeseen eruption, as the events of last Monday seemed to confirm.

kiwhig said...

The disasters you mention Karl are all very different. There is no pattern to them. They were all one-offs. This cannot be provided against.
Adventure tourism is one of New Zealand's few comparative advantages in trade. Actually an absolute advantage. This comes from being geologically the youngest sizable country on earth. This is the reason for our volcanic and wild jagged beautiful landscape.
The White Island disaster has at last made clear - to slow thinkers like me - an un-expected blessing of our ACC system; how it fosters our adventure tourism businesses by removing the baleful affects of personal injury litigation lawyers - who have snuffed out would-be competitor businesses in other countries. Of course ACC means having good regulation for these businesses, and we should concentrate on that.