In this week’s issue of Michael Quinion’s e-magazine, a reader asked about the provenance of the phrase AMBULANCE AT THE BOTTOM OF THE CLIFF, a term that he mentioned is much used in his native New Zealand. The expression (I like it!) seems so apt for the situation it describes that I thought I would mention it here.
___________________________________________<2012 “The evidence shows that it’s used to some extent in North America and the UK, though I’ve no memory of having encountered it. . . . The phrase suggests that somebody is expensively providing the wrong solution to a problem.”— World Wide Words E-Magazine, Issue 779, 24 March>
I thought the old maxim that also applies here is, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
The majority of the quotes I found were from New Zealand, but a good sprinkling (see below) weren’t. The first quote is the one that Quinion provides as the earliest he found and the rest are from archived sources:
_____________________<1920 “The politician is like the person who would build an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, instead of constructing a good fence at the top.”—Maoriland Worker (New Zealand, 25 February> 
<1977 “An Ambulance at the Cliff: A fable. A dangerous curve existed on a mountain road. Drivers trying to negotiate the curve often would lose control of their cars, which would skid off the road and over a steep cliff. The drivers would be hurt seriously or die. The obviously serious problem needed to be corrected. One way would be to straighten the road as much as possible and install a barrier to prevent cars from going over the cliff. Another would be to leave the road as it was and simply station an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. Then, you see, the injured could be quickly taken to the hospital for treatment. That latter course is, of course, ludicrous. But no more ludicrous than a proposal before President Carter, to eliminate most safety regulations at working places and to substitute higher workmen’s compensation benefits for those who are injured on the job.”—Boca Raton News (Florida), 8 July, page 4A>
<1998 “. . . the anti-landmines campaign, which led to the signing of the Ottawa Convention last December, should come under renewed scrutiny in the present climate. . . . The fact remains that mines are being laid 25 times faster than they can be cleared, meaning that no amount of mine clearance will adequately address the long-term problem in the absence of an unambiguous and properly enforced prohibition on their use in future conflicts. Clearance is the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff; the ban ought to be the guard-rail at its edge.”—The Independent (London), 30 August>
<2010 “Passing the Food Safety Modernization Act would be like putting an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, . . . Having more authority to trace and recall tainted food does not address the real causes of foodborne disease.”—Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minnesota), 30 November>
<2012 “. . . were adopting an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff approach rather than being proactive and creating opportunities that would keep the town centre alive.”—Ashburton Guardian (New Zealand), 14 March>
Ken G – March 26, 2012
PS: To sign up for Michael Quinions free weekly World Wide Words E-Magazine go here.