Should idiots pay for their own rescue?

The NZ Herald editorial mulls it over

A party of off-road driving enthusiasts set out in 13 vehicles on Sunday afternoon to tackle a notorious high-country dirt track before it was closed for the winter. The weather in the deep south was already wintry. Snow and frigid temperatures were forecast but the enthusiasts in the group of 38, which included two children, were confident they could make the journey by nightfall.

Late that night when the snowstorm had arrived and their four-wheel-drive vehicles were mired in 2m snowdrifts on the Waikaia Bush Rd near Otago’s boundary with Southland, a rescue mission had to be mounted.

Searchers from the police and the National Rescue Co-ordination Centre were unable to reach them by land and called off the attempt at 1.30am. The stranded people spent the night in the vehicles with the engines running to keep them warm. Next day the storm continued and several attempts to reach them by helicopter were aborted.

The Defence Force was called on but even its chopper could not handle the conditions. The people were facing a second night huddled in the vehicles until just before dark, two snowmobiles reached them and they were ferried to safety on Sunday night.

All that is great stuff.  The problem is:  why did those people think they could tackle the most challenging conditions at a time when severe weather was forecast?  And should this decision mean they pay for their rescue? 

The objection has been that people in need might not call for help, or delay too long, if they knew they would face a bill. But people in fear for their lives have much more pressing concerns. If they are not in fear of their lives, perhaps the expense is unnecessary.

In this case, nature could impose her own penalty. The vehicles were still snowbound on the track yesterday and might remain so until the spring, though chances are the owners will make an attempt to recover them in the next thaw. They made a reckless decision to set out on such a jaunt in the deep south at this time of year. They live in the region and know what its weather can do. They were putting more than their off-road vehicles at risk when they set out. It might be salutary for outdoor adventurers if they lost more than their equipment when they need to be rescued. If they are not routinely charged for a contribution to the cost of the emergency services, they should be.

What this leaves unaddressed are the scores of ill-prepared tourists that need to be plucked from certain death due to lack of preparation and wide-eyed ignorance.

Things go wrong, and you can’t plan all of it away.  But in cases of stupidity or willful ignorance, our emergency services should be able to recover their costs.  Not only will that benefit their organisations, but it will provide an impetus for future explorers and adventurers to review the risks before blindly blundering into near-oblivion.


– NZ Herald


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  • Wheninrome

    Of course they should. If I become unwell and require an ambulance I am required to pay for it. That is why I belong to the St Johns to reduce the cost.
    accidents are covered by ACC.
    These adventurous types should belong to an organisation, I am sure there is one, which would take care of them if they got into difficulty.

    • Tom

      Agreed people pay an annual fee to the coastguard so they dont have to pay the cost of recovery.”A Coastguard Individual or Lifetime Membership is specific to you as a person, not to your vessel. For example, if you are out on a friends boat, you and the vessel you are on are still covered. However if a non-member friend is using your boat and you are not with them, they are not covered.” edited to add ref from Coastguard website.

  • Toby

    No, they shouldn’t.

    There are many reasons why…

    Can you imagine ringing 111 and before they sent out a helicopter, they asked for your credit card details.

    But perhaps the best reason why they shouldn’t pay is the case where someone gets into trouble because they do something stupid and then decide that they won’t call for help because they are worried that they will have to pay for their rescue and then die.

    The actual cost isn’t that high because most of these people are paid whether they are actively rescuing or standing around waiting.

    • Woody

      So what you are saying is that we will see Darwin’s theory of evolution at work.

      • Toby

        Indeed we would.
        But if you are really going to go to town, why not abolish the police, hospitals, ambulances and fire department.
        Then only the strongest would survive?

        Its a slippery slope.

        Holding back help for someone just because they did something stupid isn’t really a society I want to live in just yet.

        • ex-JAFA

          I don’t think there’s any suggestion that they shouldn’t be helped. The calibre of the people involved in manning our emergency services and SAR mean they would almost certainly defy any such regulations and definitely help someone in need.

          The question is whether or not the rescued should be asked to pay – AFTER the event. And I think they should, because it was their own stupidity that got them into that situation, which then put other people’s lives at risk.

          • Toby

            How on earth would you determine the threshold for being an idiot?
            If you checked the weather forecast and it was wrong, are you an idiot?
            If you checked the weather forecast but thought that it would probably be ok because you are experienced, are you an idiot?

            Who defines what makes an idiot or not.

            Really, it wasn’t their fault, it was the weathers fault.
            If you go outside without a raincoat and catch a cold, should you pay for own healthcare to go to the doctor because you were an idiot?

          • AF

            We also don’t know the full circumstances of why they were delayed and/or stuck.

            If we are going to get into the blame game, if the weather forecast is wrong, should the invoice be sent to the weather forecaster?

            Also, consider a scenario where you have the services called to rescue you but you don’t think you need them….reminds me of the couple who were “lost” in the Southern Alps about 2 years ago who were managing just fine and waiting out the weather…..the rescuers were annoyed their services were not required. The young overseas couple had proved to be resourceful.

          • Carl

            Toby they were idiots. There was already bad weather and snow around before the weekend and more was forecast and where they were going it is well known as being dodgy even in summer.

          • Toby

            Yip, it just sounds like an excuse to hire more paper pushers and lawyers to me.
            Rescue services cost bugger all in the grand scheme of things so trying to move it to a user pays model would be nuts.

          • MarcWills

            The weather report was correct – forecasting was for strong Southerly winds and snow, and had been saying this for more than a day. Why you would proceed on an alpine track under those conditions is incomprehensible to any careful adventurer. The inevitable happened, just lucky they were all safe in the end.

          • Mark

            In many cases thou I am unsure if this case is one of them,the members of the SAR come from the same community of enthusiasts. They are the hunters,offroaders,trampers etc,so maybe some of these folk already contribute?

        • Woody

          I am certainly not suggesting that help should be withheld but I am saying that there are always consequences for decisions. In this case a decision was made to go, this decision was wrong as it turned out and I suggest any reasonable group of 4WD enthusiasts would not have gone in view of the existing and forecast conditions.

          One of the consequences should include paying for their rescue, if they knew that would be the case and then chose not to call for help because of this, it would be another faulty decision with consequences which in this case would likely be fatal.

          A consequence of being billed after being extracted could well be that similar groups may in the future make make better decisions in view of the potential consequences.

          To cover off the subject of other organisations charging for recovery, my daughter fell from a horse, breaking her clavicle, in an inaccessible area and as a consequence had a ride in the Westpac Rescue helicopter. This fine organisation in due course sent me an invoice to cover part of the cost of that extraction. They did not pursue this when I pointed out that I was already a paid up supporter and had been for some time and as such was covered for their good work. My donation however, did go up at the next renewal.

  • JustAnotherLurker

    No they shouldn’t pay.
    Does it make a difference because they are “rich” (i.e. own 4x4s equipped for off-roading) and, probably, white? They got into difficulties because of poor decisions. Compare and contrast “Mother of 8 lives in motel” at taxpayer expense. She got into difficulties because of poor decisions (x 8).
    Many times in life poor decisions bite us in the rear and cost us dearly, but sometimes the circumstances end up well beyond our control and someone has to step in and assist. Experience is a great teacher but sometimes the tuition fees are prohibitive.

  • Dave

    Yes they should. In this case, they were ill advised to go over the track, the weather forecast and time of the year was against them. They should have called off the trip, and turned home given the deteriorating weather but continued. That is their own mistake. They were NOT well prepared and equipped for what eventuated, buy not having much extra food or warmth, and fuel was getting too low for my liking, I have always been taught to FUEL UP as late as possible just before going off road. The hours spent in helicopters alone is likely to come to $15K, then the risk to lives, the hundreds of hours of emergency workers times, then the question, who is paying for the Snowcats, the 4WD clubs vehicles and so on, plus all the volunteers time, fuel and equipment?

    The only light to allow them and others to learn from, is their vehicles and possessions are likely to be there until late spring or early summer, if they can be recovered at all.

    • Tom

      Were any of the vehicles Landrover Diesel discoveries. I could do with some spares! Joking of course!

      • Dave

        I suspect if any are land rovers, once thawed out they will only need a battery, fuel, and a few cranks before they can be driven out. The Jap 4WD’s might need the Landrovers to tow them out!

    • kereru

      If I was on of them I’d definitely give a hefty donation to search and rescue, Westpac helicopters (or whoever sponsors them) and the like. Admitting my own foolishness in going on a hare-brained adventure when the weather was closing in, I could do nothing less than show appreciation for those who had to put themselves out to rescue me and my party.

  • Davo42

    Moral hazard is a situation in which one party gets involved in a risky event knowing that it is protected against the risk and the other party will incur the cost – in this case the NZ tax payer is the other party. Seems to me these adventurers were either completely unaware idiots, or they were looking for some risky action. If they are all idiots then fair enough, but if they were dicing with the devil and they knew it then they should pay up.

    • kereru

      That, of course, would be a conscience issue. Some people don’t seem to have one.

  • rua kenana

    Who defines who is the idiot? The MSM?
    Somewhat like saying accident victims should pay for their own carelessness instead of the Accident Compensation Corporation picking up the tab.
    Search and Rescue is a pretty well established part of most modern societies which they’re generally happy enough to pay for. There’s even communication satellites, SARsat and Cospas (Russian), dedicated to the purpose.
    But SAR is also capable of abuse such as when some hunter in Westland was in the backblocks a few years back, realised he was late for an appointment and called the rescue helicopter claiming he was lost or some similar fabrication.

    • Tom

      Coastguard charge for a rescue!

      • AF

        Is it a request for a donation or an invoice? I’m aware St Johns used to request a donation after having used their service, I’m not sure if this is still the case or if they invoice for their service.

        • Tom

          Invoice see my post below. If you are a coastguard member No charge if you are not, you get billed. If its lifesaving no bill. But routine rescue yes. Edited for amplification!

      • Quinton Hogg

        if you are not a member.

  • AF

    Part of living in a civilised society is that we all contribute taxes to pay for services we may or may not call upon. I see charging for rescue as being a slippery slope – where does it stop? To use an example, if someone was ‘silly enough’ (according to someones interpretation) to go skiing, or surfing or any other activity that for whatever reason resulted in an injury, should they pay for their hospital care? No. That is what taxes and ACC etc are for. Should someone who is ‘silly enough’ to leave their house unlocked and are burgled, should they be invoiced for using Police time? No. Same goes for the Fire Service. Charging for rescue is a slippery slope. To first ask for credit cards (or invoicing in arrears) before picking up or treating victims is a very American approach. Let’s not go there.

  • Tom

    I will bet their insurance companies love them.

  • InnerCityDweller

    On this blog we tend to advocate, more often than not, for personal responsibilities. Why not take that approach and apply the same logic in cases like this?

    If I know I’ll get whacked with a massive bill, by being an utter idiot, it serves me well. Don’t want to pay? Well, there’s always a Darwin award just waiting for you.

  • XCIA

    Would the owner of the land be responsible under the new H&S laws for not ensuring that the area was safe in the first place ;-)

    • Woody


  • Mountie

    This is part of what we are as a country, we care about human life and will rescue anyone that gets into trouble. Can you imagine the bill for flying the Orion out to rescue a yachtie or up to the islands recently to locate a lost fisherman who could afford to repay the cost to the RNZAF!

  • R&BAvenger

    Locals and a 4WD group to boot, should know better, both in the choices they make and the local conditions, of the track and weather. Always check the weather forecast and assume the worst. This guys seem to have failed to do so. there should be some consequence.

    • quethe

      That is a very scary road. I’ve been on it in summer (on foot) and it wasn’t good. 4WD group took a big risk especially with children on board. The farmer said it all, “they were stupid”. Their vehicles will not be rescued. That’s a punishment. To pay? Yes. They knew the risks and they still went ahead.

      • Dave

        100% in agreement, and they ignored one weather forecast, trying to beat the weather. So, the dilemma facing insurers. Can they claim insurance, they abandoned their vehicles, they left them parked, they were not stolen or damaged! I hope there is no insurance payout.

        • BG

          But isn’t the whole point of off reading to get stuck?

  • Cadwallader

    A question: Is the track across private farmland? If so, will OSH belt the owner with a huge fine? I understand each farm is meant to have a hazard map canvassing each and every potential problem on the farm; oughtn’t a rough track at high altitude be a classified hazard? Just wondering…

    • localnews

      Classic, can we send all the Osh investigators in next week in their company cars?
      Leave them there until spring

  • OneTrack

    I don’t know about paying for the rescue, but a big donation to the teams that pulled them out wouldn’t go amiss

    • Barnacles2

      There were 13 vehicles, so they can all contribute something to make a sizeable donation.

      • OneTrack


  • Disinfectant

    There is a wider issue here.

    For years we have been witnessing rescues at a cost to the taxpayer. Many if them for foreign nationals who visit New Zealand.

    There must exist a lucrative market for “rescue insurance”.

    Maybe we as a Nation need to make it very clear that if you don’t have rescue insurance, you will need to pay the cost of any rescue.

    • Tom

      I have climbed and skied a lot in Europe wouldnt dream of doing it without insurance cover. I want to take a risk, I take the consequences not the taxpayer .

  • Keanne Lawrence

    Not all high risk adventure tourists are just arriving across the boarder and there are planet who being accustomed to local climate and weather swings especially at this time of the year.
    User pays should be a priority for no hopers like these mugs but it is all to common with fronter’s with their 4wd normally displayed at the front of their dwelling more often than being put to the test.
    If people want adventure then there should be no compulsion on any rescuer when their sorry excuse for a “plan” goes pear shaped. Plan for the worst and hope for the best including their escape plan.

  • seismac

    Just come back from filling them all with antifreeze –all look ok except for the Kea damage -Think those buggars know how to hot wire a Toyota
    Was in the old Landrover 110 V8