This article by Andrew Bell was first published on LinkedIn and is republished here with his permission.
Anaru Ropiha was a friend who taught me a little about courage. We formed a band at Waikato University in the 80’s with Chris Moses, Chris King, Moses Hiakita and Bruce Smith. Three Pakeha, three Maori, one in a wheelchair. Anaru was the singer and frontman – known as ‘Jimi’ because of his visual and vocal resemblance to Hendrix. He was a smiling sticky-sweet box of charisma – seductive, charming and true. He had all the mana & moves, knew how to wrap his arms around a crowd, holding them together in a heaving mess of joy as they sang along to the hits from Prince, The Doors, Springsteen, Bob Marley and Aotearoa. We would trace out a ragged musical arc of emotion behind him, trusting his instincts, rewarded with boozy cheers.
There was something heroic about how he could harness the Hamilton pub crowds, but he was humble about it, like it was some kind of accidental talent. He was training to be a teacher and was being groomed for a career in politics.
There was nothing heroic about how he died. Killed by a stranger in a Landrover while riding his 50cc scooter at night on Ruakura Road, with his lights and helmet on. The driver never came forward, Anaru was 21 years old. At his tangi in Tokoroa we sang though our grief, sitting beside him night and day as he lay dressed in his leathers holding a microphone in an open casket. His whanau was devastated, his iwi had lost a leader, and we never played as a band again.
Tangihana is a moving grief process where friends & whanau put their arms around each other in aroha on a journey from loss, through remembrance, to goodbye and acceptance. There was little room for injustice. As we moved on with our lives his name would come up in conversation, we’d reminisce about a gig somewhere, then sit quietly with the reminder of his sudden death at the back of our minds. We grew to accept it. Part of life. Nothing we could do to prevent it.
Many years, bandmates, songs and gigs later I have discovered a little of the talent Anaru had for holding a crowd and taking them with you. Right words, right music, right room, but most of all trust and respect for people – as best you can. It’s taken me much longer to learn that Anaru’s road death was no accident. It was a trap knowingly set at night, predictable and preventable. As a Road System Designer I know the signs and if you wait long enough for a human mistake to happen, as they inevitably do, the trap will spring indiscriminately and unforgivingly, taking your best mate from you.
When it comes to road danger we have been socialised not to bother about trying to reach out and put our arms around the ones we love. Mothers struggle with the maternal anguish of not knowing if their sons and daughters will return home at night. They are told not to worry. Male Kiwi stoicism is a dangerous currency – threaded through our culture, songs and media it plays into the hands of cash-strapped roading authorities who are trained to wait until death traps go off before they can spend. It’s called economics. There is nothing ethical about it.
No road death or serious injury is acceptable. I know that 87% of our road network is operated and maintained at un-survivable speeds – 2 tonne vehicles hurtling towards each other at 100 kph with nothing but 3 inches of paint between them. Small human mistakes – fatigue, distraction, visibility etc – will have tragic consequences. We cannot create the perfect driver. We can create forgiving roads.
I also know that creating survivable speed limits of 80kph is the most effective and low-cost scalable solution that a Government can implement quickly to prevent death and serious injury on rural roads. Where we have put Survivable Speeds in place, we have seen healthy, sustainable and vibrant communities emerge. They do more than just leave us alive, they improve our lives
We have seen courageous compassion shown recently in Aotearoa by leaders, communities, and musicians. We know that we are good at putting our arms around each other to grieve in times of tragedy. Now it’s time as Road System Designers to put our arms around friends, whanau and communities to prevent tragedy, holding them safely while the daily song of travel takes place to get to work, children to school, do our domestic work, move goods, and provide services. We also need to give priority for the most vulnerable – the young, the old, people walking & cycling, and communities in low income areas that need safe travel choices.
This is a vision shared by many who care for our communities and requires Road System Designers to also show courage and shift from victims to heroes, to reform our transport system and radically improve our lives. Auckland Transport leadership have done this by allowing myself and my colleagues to apply the Vision Zero and Survivable Speed principles to our road network in Tamaki Makaurau.
We have been talking to communities about our Vision for Survivable Speeds. Some are sceptical due to long-held ‘blame the road user’ beliefs, travel delay myths and the perception that we are taking something away from them. As the discussion shifts to how Survivable Speeds will give them what all communities want – a safe place their families can grow up in, become independent and do business from – a strange tangihana takes place in the conversation, like a deadly secret has been uncovered, and they begin to grieve for why it has taken us so long to do this.
With the tangihana conversations underway, we are gathering community support as we go, and more importantly, we are acting on it, engineering Hope, one raised crossing at a time. It’s challenging, as is anything new, but the good news is that it’s working. We are saving lives and preventing serious injury. We’ve got this, and we need more Vision Heroes to join us.
Road System Designers of Aotearoa, we share the same power, can see the same opportunities, and know the solutions. Join us in speaking up and taking urgent action together on survivable speeds. Nga Iwi E.
Soundtrack to the article – Century by Big Thief