On a clear day, Ngauruhoe rises above the Volcanic Plateau like a white paper cut-out pasted on the sharp, blue sky—a picture-postcard image of the New Zealand landscape. Tourists in the coaches that roar back and forth across the Desert Road press their faces against the windows, watching out for the next great vista. They have paid their money and are here to capture the great New Zealand dream.
But on the shoulder of the road is another vista; a smaller, quieter, sadder one. It is a white painted cross, cemented into the ground, and it stands as a silent memorial to a fatal accident which occurred here in the spring of 1995.
The cross bears the name of Nikolai Stephens, who was killed when the 4WD vehicle he was in was hit by a car travelling on the wrong side of the road. Like thousands of similar crosses throughout the country, it now has a small cluster of flowers carefully attached to its base.
Today, when Nikolai’s brother, Ron, heads south, he pulls off to the side of the road and stops here, “to spend a bit of quiet time,” he says. “I often call in on my way to visit my Mum and Dad, who are buried in Raetihi.” He says that generally he can tell if his sister has been there before him, because “she often leaves some flowers or something behind her.”
The story of the roadside cross—while not unique to New Zealand—has precedents that run deep into our past. In the 1880s, Hareti Poihipi carved and erected a figure close to State Highway 30, which runs through the Rotorua thermal area, to indicate the site where a man had been asphyxiated by gases from a fumarole while trying to catch a pig. Like crosses visible today just south of Huntly, on State Highway 1, the memorial was draped with the victim’s clothing and served as both a memorial and a warning of the danger.
Italian miners working on the Tongariro power scheme in the central North Island also used memorial markers at the site of accidents. They erected small iron crosses to mark the sites where colleagues had died, and emulated a tradition practised by Greek immigrants in the early part of last century who erected small shrines at the site of fatal accidents. These memorials were based on the icon stops in use in their own country.
The history of marking incidents involving injury or death with a cross also has political precedents. In the late 1970s, activists sprayed crosses on to footpaths of major city streets to indicate where women had been raped. Similarly, gay men in the mid-1980s painted small black crosses on pink triangles on the walls of public toilets that had become the sites of regular queer bashings.
The origins of the modern roadside-cross movement can be traced to the small North Island town of Katikati. Here, at a summer barbecue in 1990, Doug Brown, Ian Carter and seven other Bay of Plenty locals, many of whom had children approaching the legal driving age, were discussing the dangers of the Te Puna-Athenree stretch of State Highway 2.
Their concern had been heightened by the recent publication of disturbing road-death statistics which ranked New Zealand’s driving-safety record 14th out of the 24 OECD countries surveyed.
The group decided something needed to be done to warn motorists about the dangers of that stretch of road, and hit on the idea of marking the sites of fatal accidents with crosses. They approached people who had lost family members in the area and gained unanimous permission to erect white wooden crosses at the accident sites. Timber and paint were donated by local businesses, and over two consecutive weekends the group erected 53 crosses.
Transit New Zealand disapproved of the initiative and immediately pulled the crosses out. A week later they were back up, then taken down, then put back up . . .
And thus began perhaps the most widespread and effective citizen-initiated safety campaign ever to surface in New Zealand.
In the following decade, roadside crosses would run an uneasy and sometimes turbulent parallel to the official road-safety-awareness campaigns run by Transit New Zealand.
Transit’s initial objection to the crosses was mainly that they would prove a distraction to motorists. Transit’s network manager, George Brennan, argued at the time, “Some people find themselves looking out for the next cross to appear, or counting crosses, rather than watching the road as diligently as they should be.”
However, boosted by positive media coverage, the campaign spread rapidly through the country, with crosses becoming especially evident on State Highway 1 between Pokeno and Hamilton and on many of the roads around Northland and the east coast of the North Island.
In Huntly, Bruce Horrox, an active member of the local volunteer fire brigade, began to erect crosses at sites of accidents between Rangiriri and Taupiri. In his job as a fireman, over 50 per cent of the call-outs he attended were related to traffic accidents, many of them horrific. He was prompted to follow up on the Katikati initiative so he could do something about “highlighting the black spots and making people aware of the carnage on the roads.”
Today, it’s a family affair. Bruce, his father, Alan, and brother, David, make the crosses in the basement of the family home, install them and attend to those already installed when they are in need of repair or a fresh lick of paint.
The Te Kauwhata fire service, just up the road, also performs the same service, installing crosses at accident sites between their community and Meremere.
By 1993, Transit New Zealand was acknowledging the white-cross phenomenon within its formal road-safety policy, stating that the purpose of the crosses was to “show the public where fatal accidents had occurred and to serve as a road-safety reminder.”
Transit released guidelines for the erection, maintenance and removal of white crosses. While originally prepared for its own regional offices, the guidelines were also sent to the police and local councils.
The guidelines negotiated the fine line between supporting the erection of crosses and attempting to minimise the danger inherent in roadside structures. Because many of the accidents had occurred in hazardous locations, and a growing number of bereaved families had begun to use the crosses both as markers and sites of pilgrimage, the guidelines focused on the positioning and construction of the memorials. They recommended that the crosses should not be erected on motorways or near on and off ramps, that they should be constructed with set dimensions and painted white, containing no reflective materials or attachments.
Because of concern regarding the siting of the memorials too close to the road, the guidelines also recommended that the structures be “free standing or attached to boundary fences in a location and manner that will not contribute to or cause any possible accident.”
Transit also believed crosses should not be erected if the road had been altered since the accident, because the justification for them being there had been removed.
Mery Lauder, Transit’s state highways operations manager in 1998, voiced a concern that had grown over the development of the cross from a simple wooden structure to a personalised shrine. While he conceded that it was inevitable that people would want to visit the sites, he said, “We don’t want to be seen as encouraging people to congregate around them.”
Nevertheless, it was not uncommon for drivers to see clusters of friends and family stopped at the side of a busy highway in public displays of grief once reserved for cemeteries.
The issue of crosses being turned into shrines was highlighted again in 1998 when the Rev. Tangi Te Mapu, a Tainui kaumatua and Anglican minister, said that he planned to remove crosses from a section of State Highway 1 and bury them in the Rangiriri cemetery. He argued that this was because they were “spooky.”
Both the church and Tainui leadership distanced themselves from his proposal, while conceding that there were some cultural/ spiritual issues involved in treating the crosses as graves.
However, the unease felt by many drivers was not just culturally based. Because of the growing personalisation of roadside crosses, many sites became graphic reminders of the human face of the road toll. Poignant adornments such as photographs, children’s toys and torn clothing began to decorate the constructions, and with them the phenomenon moved from the generic symbol to powerful memorials to personal loss. Sites of fatalities involving families appeared, with large and small crosses grouped together as units, and collections of spaced crosses pointed to the fact that whole stretches of badly designed road were historically lethal.
As early as 1995, some crosses had been made the centre of small roadside installations containing messages, gardens of artificial flowers, children’s toys and potted plants. More recently, constructions featuring parts of the wreckage have been erected in the upper King Country and on State Highway 2 between Paeroa and Ngatea. In an unusual twist, full cans of beer and bottles of alcohol have been integrated into the cross structure or left at the site as an offering.
One complication that has arisen with the proliferation of crosses involves their removal. Sometimes removal is an issue because they have been erected next to private property, and are considered to have a negative impact on a potential sale, or, more commonly, because they have been installed on land where road modifications are planned.
In January 2001, Nick Gurr of Opus International, Transit’s overseer in Taupo, delayed contractors from removing crosses on a section of the Hatepe hill between Taupo and Turangi. This area was undergoing substantial alteration, and the excavations were due to affect areas containing a series of whitecross installations. The delay allowed time for people who had erected anonymous memorials to make contact with him, following a cover feature in the Taupo Times. He suggested that the families might wish “to conduct some sort of ceremony or blessing” prior to removing the crosses themselves.
The White Cross, whether adorned with memorabilia or starkly plain, is an undeniably up-front message about the human cost of the road toll, and its graphic potency coincided with a change in the tone of the country’s official road-safety advertising campaigns.
In 1995, the Land Transport Safety Authority and the New Zealand Police adopted a campaign which replicated the “in your face” approach to the road-safety issue. The aim of the initiative was to couple increased police-enforcement activity with hard-hitting road-safety messages. A similar campaign had been used in Victoria, and in its first five years had helped to halve the road toll in that state.
The campaign’s goal in this country was to reduce the road toll to fewer than 420 deaths by 2001. At that time, nearly 600 people were being killed annually on New Zealand roads, with the total cost of road crashes to the country estimated at $3.6 billion.
The new advertisements were designed to target speed, alcohol and failure to wear safety belts, and relied on emotion to deliver the messages. The campaign document described the advertising as:” . . . designed to engage people’s core fears and vulnerabilities. In achieving this, the use of absolute realism is vital. If they are false, contrived, clever or arty, our road safety advertisements will not work.”
For the next five years, New Zealanders witnessed in their living rooms men watching their mates being incinerated in cars, children being thrown across windscreens and drivers being emotionally rent apart in displays of grief and self-blame.
By 1997, the reduction in the road toll had been dramatic. The number of people injured annually in crashes fell 19 per cent, from 16,000 to 13,700. By the end of 2000 the death toll was down from 600 to 465, despite a substantial increase in road usage over the five years since the campaign began. This was the lowest road toll in 36 years.
White crosses have reached a level of ubiquity and acceptance where they have been assimilated into national advertising campaigns. When in 1997-98 new billboard campaigns were commissioned to tie in with extra policing to tackle the problems of speed and drink driving, the LTSA was presented with eight proposals. Two of those selected incorporated white crosses.
Desiree Keown, manager of communications for the LTSA, says: “White crosses are extremely effective ‘shorthand’ for road deaths. Everyone knows what they mean and they do have a sobering effect when you’re driving past.”
As recently as May 2001, the LTSA and the NZ Police ran a full-page Mother’s Day advertisement in the press, featuring a simple white cross surrounded by a small floral tribute with words that read, “On Mother’s Day, some people will say it with flowers.”
Crosses on New Zealand roads now number in the thousands. Some stand on public land and some on private property, by arrangement with the owner. They range in condition from scrupulously tended, heavily decorated shrines to lonely, stoic reminders of somebody’s life.
They have become a pervasive New Zealand icon, and will no doubt continue to be part of the way that, as a nation, we deal with and talk about loss on our roads. They are also a reminder that initiatives for social change often have humble beginnings—in this case a backyard barbie with ordinary people who felt that something needed to be done.