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Counting the cost of power pole carnage

Counting the cost of power pole carnage

News release: Alpha Publishing, 10/07/00

Counting the cost of power pole carnage


There's been a call today for the electrical industry and the Government to help to eliminate one of the most dangerous hazards motorists face on the road - the power pole.

In the latest issue of the electrical industry magazine 'ElectroLink', publisher Neil Frank says New Zealanders have been dying through power pole collisions for so long now, the population has become desensitised to the road carnage which roadside power poles contribute to.

"These days it is hardly noticed, much less cared for, because the killers have stood in our communities longer than we have," he says.

"If we count every New Zealander killed in armed conflict since the second world war - in Malaya, Borneo, Korea, Vietnam and every other action our defence forces have been in, including East Timor, and compare this figure with the previous 40 months of power pole 'road kills', more people have died as a result of vehicle collisions with poles.

"Soldiers may well have sacrificed their lives for a noble cause," says Frank, "but how many people crushed to death on a power pole offered to die for the electricity industry?

In a major article in the July/August edition of Electrolink (released today) publisher Neil Frank outlines a series of significant points which he believes should be considered by:

(i) the New Zealand Government

(ii) power companies, and

(iii) the public.

* Throughout the 1990s, more than 11,000 people have been killed or injured through utility pole collisions.

* The LTSA calculates the cost to society of a road fatality at $2,478,000 and has also measured what it calls the 'social costs' of reported urban and rural injuries - loss of life and life quality; emergency, hospital and medical treatment; legal and court costs; and property damage. Multiplying an average of these social costs by the number of people killed and injured in pole accidents over the past decade reveals a loss to the community of close to $2 billion at June 1999 prices.

* The cost in human and dollar terms from power pole collisions is huge. However, this cost has never been laid at the door of the electricity industry. In fact the reverse occurs. Pole owners (the power companies) charge accident victims for the damage to their property.

* Electrical work and electrical workers are now going through another safety regulation review, but it is time for the regulators to draw back and examine where the biggest threats to public safety lie as far as electricity is concerned. Since the Electricity Act took full effect in 1993, just 42 people have been killed in electrical accidents reported under the Act. (this includes electrical workers and the public)

* The process of "undergrounding" power company lines appears to have resulted in a decrease in power pole collisions in urban areas, compared to country areas where undergrounding is far less common.

* While power pole collisions are declining - possibly through a variety of reasons such as better driving habits - studies overseas clearly show that positioning power poles further back from the road reduces the likelihood that cars will hit them, and that replacing rigid power poles with specially designed "breakaway" poles halves the numbers of fatalities and serious injuries.

* The Inland Revenue Department bars power companies from claiming the costs of "undergrounding" existing lines in the year the costs were incurred. The IRD says undergrounding lines must be depreciated as an asset. ElectroLink publisher Neil Frank says if changes to the tax law stimulated an increase in the replacement of overhead lines with underground lines by removing the tax disincentive, a tax flow reduction for the Government could be offset by a reduction in the 'social cost' of pole collisions. This was estimated at $155 million last year alone, by the Land Transport Safety Authority.

* Changes to other New Zealand legislation could also result in improved public safety. The Electricity Act 1992 took away the right to run power lines across private property. Since 1993 power companies have had to gain a landowner's consent, compensate the landowner and obtain a formal easement to put in a new line. While property owners no doubt benefit from this law, the process and cost of obtaining a consent now encourages lines companies to put poles along the road reserve instead of in the safest location for them. In some instances this can conflict with the Transit New Zealand Act 1989, which requires poles to be located as far as practicable from the carriageway. It could also mean more pole accidents are occurring as a result.

Contact: Neil Frank, Alpha Publishing, tel 0-9-302 0488, fax 0-9-302 0489.

Note, Editors: The full text of the ElectroLink story is attached.

The killing fields of the electricity industry

Alongside every road in New Zealand is a slender strip of ground that soaks up the blood of people killed or maimed in daily collisions with electricity networks. These collisions go largely unnoticed. If just one of these people were to be gunned down instead, there would be a national outcry. If just one of these people were a celebrity or a politician, maybe the killers would be outlawed. The killing has gone on for so long now it is hardly noticed much less cared for because the killers have stood in our communities longer than we have. While we enjoy all the comforts of electricity they bring us, outside on the roadside, killer power poles continue to claim their daily victims. These victims pay for our electricity-powered comfort with their lives.

While the imagery of war may be the starkest way to describe the carnage, it is not over the top. If you add up every New Zealander killed in armed conflict since the second world war (Malaya, Borneo, Korea, Vietnam and every other action our defence forces have been in such as East Timor) and compare this figure with the latest 40 months of power pole roadkills, more people have died in vehicle collisions with poles.

The angst, the public scrutiny and protest engendered by war (particularly Vietnam) cannot be reconciled with the indifference toward the vastly greater number of electricity deaths.

Soldiers may well have sacrificed their lives for a noble cause. How many people crushed to death on a power pole offered to die for the electricity industry?

Let’s look at the facts. Utility poles – the poles and posts that carry electricity for power, light and telecommunications are the single stationary object most collided with in reported vehicle accidents.

According to the Land Transport Safety Authority (LTSA), throughout the nineties, there were 7,643 reported vehicle collisions with utility poles killing or injuring over 11,000 people as a result. (Fig. 1) This averages out at almost exactly two collisions every day with three people being either killed or injured.

The cost in human and dollar terms is huge. This cost has never been laid at the door of the electricity industry. In fact the reverse occurs. Pole owners charge the accident victims for the damage to their property.

The LTSA calculates the cost to society of a road fatality at $2,478,000 and has also measured what it calls the ‘social costs’ of reported urban and rural injuries: loss of life and life quality; emergency, hospital and medical treatment; legal and court; and property damage. Multiplying an average of these social costs by the number of people killed and injured in pole accidents over the decade reveals a loss to the community of $1,940,666,100.00 or $2billion at June 1999 prices. Fortunately, the number of pole collisions is declining.

The extent of this electricity industry carnage compared with electrical accidents involving electrical workers and the general public makes the electrical industry look safe. Since the Electricity Act took full effect in 1993, 42 people have been killed in electrical accidents reported under the Act. Twenty-one of them were members of the public, the other half were electrical workers (some from the electricity industry) and other occupations. (Fig. 2) During the same period, 311 people died in vehicle collisions with utility poles – over seven times as many. Over the last decade 483 people were killed by poles. (Fig. 3)

With electrical work and electrical workers now being re-regulated yet again, maybe it’s time for the regulators to draw back and examine where the biggest threats to public safety lie as far as electricity is concerned.

The Electricity Act 1992 all but missed the mark on public safety. It was structured from electricity generation, transmission and distribution out, rather than from the electricity consumer back through the electrical industry to electricity supply. ECNZ dominated the Act to the point where it was referred to in the document simply as ‘the Corporation’.

Despite the fact that the government validates its intervention in the electrical industry (as distinct from the electricity industry) primarily by its duty to ensure public safety, the public was not referenced in Part I of the Electricity Act which defines the parties affected by the Act.

Consumers were referenced, however, and a consumer was defined as “any person who is supplied, or who applies to be supplied with electricity”. Applicants for supply and people already receiving supplies are customers so the Act appears to have been designed to address only those members of the public who were end-customers of ‘the Corporation’. One could be excused for thinking the purpose of the Electricity Act, as far as public safety was concerned, went little further than keeping customers alive for Electricorp.

Now ‘the Corporation’ has long gone but the dominance of the legislative process by its offshoots still bedevils the electrical industry. A couple of electricity companies buy into gas distribution and suddenly the electrical industry has to be restructured again to bring gas and electricity under the same umbrella.

However, this time around there might be a saving grace for the electrical industry. A lot of the unworkable constraints of the current Act and regulations can be addressed at the same time and the EWRB might well be empowered to align its activities to work more effectively with the industry as a result. Public safety is now firmly on the agenda.

The new electrical safety regime as defined by the EnergySafe Committee proposes to split off workplace safety into OSH as requested by electricity interests and address public safety with a new energy act incorporating electrical and gas work.

This means the erection of power poles and the construction of lines will fall under the Health & Safety in Employment Act and safety will be enforced via new regulations under this Act.

So OSH-compliant lines companies and their employees will be doing a superb job identifying, minimising and removing hazards as they erect poles up and down the byways of New Zealand only to safely construct more of the hazards that motorists collide with most.

If the safe erection of dangerous hazards is going to remain a job well done under a future energy act, then managing the separation of motor vehicles from electricity networks is a job for government at a broader level.

The issue becomes one of getting poles further out of the way, or eliminating them altogether. Power companies have helped by undergrounding many of their lines and, by 1994, about 18 per cent of their total line kilometres were buried. Power companies first started documenting their underground lines separately at this time as part of their disclosure requirements. Summing them produces a total of 24,507 kilometres as at 1994. A lot of unforgiving, solid poles have been removed.

In the last five years, an additional 3,557 kilometres of lines have been undergrounded. The increase each year over the 1994 base (fig. 4) compares favourably with the annual decrease in pole collision casualties (fig. 5) suggesting there could be a link.

The considerable decrease in pole collisions in urban areas where undergrounding generally occurs compared to only a slight decline in rural pole collisions also suggests undergrounding is paying a safety dividend. (Fig 6) More pole accidents occur on urban roads but they cause fewer fatalities than collisions on rural roads. Perhaps speed is a factor.

Research done in several different countries has drawn the remarkable conclusion that the further poles are from the road, the less likely vehicles are to hit them. Removing the poles altogether should diminish this likelihood somewhat further.

A New South Wales study measured the percentage reduction in casualties when poles were relocated at specific distances from the road: 13 per cent (1 metre), 30 per cent (1.5 metres), 50 per cent (2 metres), 60 per cent (2.5 metres) and 80 per cent (3 metres).

According to a May 1999 report by the NHMRC Road Accident Research Unit at the University of Adelaide, when relocating conventional steel lighting columns to the property line was combined with the undergrounding of services, there was a further reduction in casualty rates: 25 per cent (1 metre), 40 per cent (1.5 metres), 57 per cent (2 metres), 65 per cent (2.5 metres) and 83 per cent (3 metres). When slip-based poles were used for lighting, casualty rates reduced even further.

More pole accidents occur at night than day so improvements in the quality of street lighting could be reducing collisions as well. Where there are power poles, streetlights are usually placed on them. When the power goes underground, new light poles can be located not only in safer positions, but also where they can deliver better road lighting by design.

There are likely to be many other contributive reasons for the steadily decreasing number of pole collisions such as improvements in driver behaviour. Often the undergrounding of lines occurs in conjunction with road improvements that make driving safer. Regardless of cause, pole accidents are declining at a faster rate than overall accidents (fig. 5).

The other area where the electricity industry is contributing to the reduction in injuries and deaths is in improved pole design. Pole technology changed in the early seventies and the industry made a deliberate move in New Zealand to adopt these safer poles, says Alan Jenkins a consultant to the Electricity Networks Association.

According to one American study, breakaway poles which absorb much of the impact of the vehicle and allow it to pass through, were far less injurious than collisions with rigid wooden poles which produced twice as many fatalities and severe injuries. The reduction in injury from breakaway poles was found to be even greater than the reduction gained by wearing seatbelts.

The study suggested that if all rigid poles in the area were replaced with breakaway poles, there would be one sixth the number of serious injuries.

Legislative barriers

While the electricity industry continues undergrounding its lines and improving pole design and location, legislative barriers to investment outcomes that deliver public safety are perhaps contributing to the carnage of pole collisions more than they need to.

One is the taxation treatment of underground lines, the other is the impact of the Resource Management Act on pole locations.

Although 3,557 kilometres of lines have been undergrounded since 1994, the nationwide ratio of underground lines to overhead has increased by only 2.4% over the last five years. Reviewing tax law relating to undergrounding overhead lines might speed this up.

In May 1999, ElectroLink reported on an appeal lodged by Hawkes Bay Power Distribution Ltd and Eastland Energy against an Inland Revenue Department ruling that the undergrounding of existing lines could not be expensed in the year the costs were incurred and could only be depreciated as an asset.

According to Jon Nichols the financial accountant for Hawkes Bay Network Ltd, the company argued that by replacing the 11kV overhead line with an equivalent underground one, the capacity of the line and therefore the asset was not being increased so they should be able to write the undergrounding costs off as maintaining the asset. The court of appeal ruled in favour of the IRD which argued a better if not bigger asset was being created so it was a capital item.

If changes to tax law were to stimulate an increase in the replacement of overhead lines with underground lines by removing the tax disincentive, the question then becomes whether or not a tax flow reduction for the government would be justified by a reduction in the ‘social cost’ of pole collisions ($155million last year).

Significant to this calculation is the fact that pole crashes are more likely to lead to injuries than other roadside crashes (1.6 times more on urban roads in Sydney according to a 1985 study and three times more likely in two US studies). The injuries are likely to be more serious and more likely to be fatal (one in 43 pole crashes compared with one in 113 for all crashes according to a 1997 Christchurch study – six times more likely to result in a fatality according to the American studies).

Changes to other legislation could also result in improved public safety. The Electricity Act 1992 took away the right to run power lines across private property. Since 1993 power companies have had to gain a landowner’s consent, compensate the landowner and obtain a formal easement to put in a new line.

The process and cost of obtaining a consent now encourages lines companies to put poles along the road reserve instead of the safest location for them. In some instances this can conflict with the Transit New Zealand Act 1989 which requires poles to be located as far as practicable from the carriageway. It could also mean more pole accidents are occurring as a result.

The sad fact is that almost all the undergrounding that goes on is because territorial authorities require it in their district plans when new lines go in – it is rarely undertaken by lines companies as a social good, says Brian McGlinchy an electrical engineering consultant specialising in the performance of electricity networks. Councils demand it for aesthetic not safety reasons and, when it comes to new subdivisions, the developers not the lines companies pay. Many dangerously located poles remain.

According to the LTSA, the social cost of pole accidents last year was about $155million. Whether or not legislators or line companies make any moves to increase public safety and reduce this cost to the community, neither the government, motorists, electricity consumers nor the public appear to be offering lines companies $155million to start removing the poles that will cause a similar amount of carnage again this year.

The failure of public safety has a cost. The delivery of public safety has a price. If you want to know how real a commitment to public safety is, follow the money.

(Article from the July/August edition of ElectroLink magazine, published July 10, 2000).

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