Dunne's Weekly: Time To Slay The Traffic Management Monster

Published: Fri 21 Jun 2024 09:10 AM
In 2016 New Zealand instituted comprehensive new health and safety laws for workplaces and other areas of activity. The expectation was that the new regime the legislation introduced would dramatically improve the culture and practice around safety in the workplace, reduce the numbers of accidents and save lives.
However, the most obvious manifestation of the new legislation and its associated regulations has been a massive increase in compliance costs imposed on businesses and community groups. Traditional events like Christmas parades and other community activities have been cancelled because of the impost of traffic management requirements, and it seems impossible these days for even the most minor road maintenance tasks to be carried out without the accompanying panoply of ubiquitous orange cones and stop-go signs.
But so far, there has been no significant improvement in health and safety in either the workplace, the community, or on the roads. There were 275,568 claims under consideration by the Accident Compensation Corporation in 2016 when the new legislation took effect – by the end of 2023 that number had swelled to 292,380. It is a similar trend with the road toll. In 2016 there were 326 road fatalities, but by 2023 that figure had risen to 340.
In fact, all the new legislation seems to have done is spawn a new growth industry in traffic management businesses. There are many such companies operating across New Zealand, costing taxpayers and ratepayers millions of dollars annually for their dubious services. Traffic Management NZ is one of the most prominent of these. It employs more than 650 staff, operates hundreds of vehicles and thousands of traffic devices. Traffic Management NZ has proved such a successful business that it was recently fully acquired by the Altus Group, Australia’s largest full-service traffic management business. Altus Group is in turn owned by Pacific Equity Partners, Australia’s leading private equity firm, currently managing assets worth around $11 billion.
The battalions of road cones up and down the country are the most obvious evidence of the traffic management companies at work. It has been reported that the cost of hiring an individual road cone is $4 a day. Given the hundreds of cones involved in a project it is easy to see how the costs of traffic management are so high. In some cases, it has been estimated that traffic management compliance could account for up to 20% of a project’s total cost. Auckland Council estimated last year that traffic management compliance was costing it at least $145 million a year.
The major manufacturer locally of road cones is RTL. In a description that few people would recognise as reality its website proclaims its mission to “engage with industry partners, regulatory bodies, and communities to share knowledge, collaborate on safety initiatives” and “to build lasting relationships, drive sustainable growth, and make a positive difference in the world.”
Bluntly, both the traffic management companies and the cone manufacturers have treated the 2016 legislation as a “cash cow” to grow their businesses, at the taxpayer’s expense, without, as the road toll figures show, any demonstrable benefit to road safety.
I now feel embarrassed to have supported that legislation when it was going through Parliament. At the time, I supported the proposition that our health and safety laws needed to be overhauled and brought up to date to be more relevant to current circumstances. But I never imagined the bureaucratic shambles and the profiteering at the public expense that would emerge as a result. Nor I suspect, did many of my colleagues across the House,
But it was probably too much to expect the hand-wringing previous Labour Government to have been prepared to deal with this growing monster. At the same time, the ongoing silence of the National Party about the mess its legislation has created has been self-serving and disappointing. Now, finally, it has fallen to ACT’s Workplace Relations Minister, Brooke van Velden, to do something about it.
Announcing a major review of the current approach to workplace health and safety, she recently observed that “Our health and safety culture can be summed up by the sea of orange road cones that have taken over the country. From Santa parades to property development, you can’t get a lot done without having to set up a barricade of cones. While they may improve health and safety in some places, in other situations their prevalence just doesn’t make any sense … Businesses and community organisations spend a huge amount of money trying to keep people safe, but it’s worthwhile asking: are the rules and expectations proportionate to the actual risks, and when should common sense prevail?”
Bravo Minister! But for the widespread consultation and review she has promised to succeed, it cannot get hijacked by the vested interests that have so dominated this issue since 2016. Therefore, for her ambition of a more common-sense approach – which naturally I applaud – to prevail, the pernicious dominance and numbers of traffic management and cone manufacturing businesses need to be broken. Exploiting health and safety rules for commercial gain, often at the taxpayer’s expense, the way they have done since 2016 should no longer be tolerated, especially when there has been no demonstrable improvement in the overall situation since then.
Van Velden’s challenge is to break this nexus and to restore a more sensible balance. There will be many road users, small businesses, voluntary and community groups, and kids of all ages who like Christmas parades and other community fun, wishing her every success.

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