On the very first day of 2017 my family travelled to Cape Reinga, the very top of our beautiful country. After going through Kaitaia, it’s just State Highway 1 all the way to the top – one road in and one road out.
Sadly, on the way there, I witnessed (from the back seat) the most dangerous overtaking I had ever seen on New Zealand’s roads. A large white van overtook a line of at least seven cars, including ours, in the most dangerous places it could find. It was constantly weaving in and out of the traffic, even if approaching a blind corner.
Now, generally I wouldn’t think much of a small incident like this. But, what infuriated me was when we got to the Cape, this van had taken the last spot in the car park, forcing us to park in a ditch on the side of the road. When I walked past the van, I noticed it was a rental, and was packed to the brim with what I assume were tourists.
For days following my trip, I thought about dangerous overtaking maneuvers a lot. As a 17 year old with a restricted license, I was trying to understand how this driver could view blind corners as safe overtaking spots.
The answer that kept crossing my mind was raised by my Mom, who pointed out, as an example, how densely populated the roads in India are compared to our own. She visited the country in 2009, and recalls how cars are “everywhere.” Her point was that when tourists arrive in New Zealand, a group of seven cars on an isolated stretch of road might seem quiet and safe by their standards.
And to me, that’s part of the problem: if this was the reasoning of the foreign driver, then it shows a naivety regarding New Zealand roads. This type of driving behavior obviously puts the lives of other road users on the line, and for that reason we need to think carefully about solutions to a problem that is could be rooted in cultural difference.
That brings us straight back to a fiercely debated issue over the last few weeks: should all tourists be required to take a license test before driving on our roads?
On the 14th of February 2017, a large group of New Zealanders presented a petition to New Zealand’s Transport Minister, Simon Bridges, calling for an online or practical driving test to be introduced to any tourists who stay in New Zealand for longer than three months. Currently, it has more than 8000 signatures, but Simon Bridges said testing foreigners would be a “knee-jerk reaction.” Instead, the leader of the NZ First Party, Winston Peters, has picked the petition up, saying Bridges “doesn’t want to do a thing.”
However, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Bill English, has already pointed out a flaw in the petition, asking: “is it actually practical to drive and test every tourist who is arriving in New Zealand?”
Mike Hosking – presenter of the TVNZ show Seven Sharp – also pointed out the same complication of such a test. “Here’s the simple truth: you just can’t go round testing three-and-a-half million people, because that’s how many people come to the country each year. It doesn’t work,” he said.
Hosking and English both have a strong point in my opinion, but, at the end of the day, the instigators of the petition –Judy Richards and Mike Middleton – know first-hand the toll these tragedies can take. They lost their 23 year old son, Rhys Middleton, early in 2016 when he was struck by what a judge described as a “grossly incompetent” overseas visitor.
Mr Middleton spoke on the subject of impracticality this week, saying in an interview, “if [Simon Bridges] lost a child tomorrow, or a family member, he’d be onto this.
“You open the paper Sunday morning, oh, two people have been killed, turn the page, you carry on your life, it doesn’t really affect you until you lose that child,” he said.
The interview is emotional and I find it hard to watch. This indicates we cannot just take Hosking’s approach of, “this is going nowhere,” because it’s a serious problem with serious consequences. New Zealand needs a compromise between the two opinions on the issue.
And unsurprisingly, Judy Richards and Mike Middleton already have one. They’ve launched a website called VPlates.co.nz, to help push for the introduction of “a ‘V’ plate (for visitors and Tourists) visible front and back of their vehicle like an ‘L’ plate for learners.” This initiative is a fantastic start as the “public will be aware that these are overseas drivers.”
That’s a superb and practical start. But, another way to help these tourists understand is to have something quick and sharp, yet still detailed and sophisticated enough to help them understand the road rules in New Zealand. Since they’re all traveling, the majority will require a rental car for their visits. This is the perfect place to set up such a practice.
I talked to a rental car firm over the phone and asked them what practices they currently have in place to help foreign drivers understand the NZ road rules. I was told they only inform people about “which roads you’re allowed on,” and “restrictions.” However, there was no mention of any basic road rules – and this is the key area.
The government need to create a small pamphlet (or booklet) with a simplistic, visual layout of our most basic rules, such as, overtaking on straights with 100m+ of clear road, coming to a complete stop at a stop sign, and double checking at give way signs.
If each rental car salesman spent five minutes going through this with a customer, it’ll be invaluable knowledge that has the potential to change their outlook on how to approach driving in New Zealand.
And yes, I realise that maybe a pamphlet isn’t going to solve all our problems, but it could be the first step to something bigger. You always spend 30 minutes waiting for a rental car, it couldn’t hurt to increase that to 35 – especially if you know you could be saving a life. And, in the end, if it saves a life, then such a simple initiative could well be the first of many steps in the right direction.