On the Roads

There are two roads out of Wellington. Yes: two. Sheffield, a similar sized city, has more than half a dozen arterial routes leading away from it (the majority into stunning countryside I might point out), not to mention various smaller ones which, if you’re local, you can use to escape the traffic on the main roads. Let me, however, put this into context. Even if we ignore the fact that the population of NZ doesn’t reach a tenth of that of the UK, there’s geography to consider: Sheffield is in the middle of an island, entirely landlocked, its closest point to the sea an approximately 75-mile drive; Wellington is at the bottom of an island, the only roads leading north – if you go east, west or south you need wings or a flotation device. There are also a lot of hills around this city, and each road clings to a narrow strip of flat land between those hills, an almost cliff-face slope, and the sea. When the next big earthquake strikes we’re screwed and will need aircraft to drop food parcels; they won’t be able to land because the airport runway will be buggered (if it’s still here – the last major earthquake in 1855 lifted the land it sits on from marshy swamp, which Mother Nature might decide to reclaim the next time she shakes us). It’s also highly likely the port would be inactive, that too being on reclaimed land, even the last moderate shake we had taking the wharf cranes out of action for months. In the event of The Big One I’m also likely to be buggered – I’m far too polite to fight others for my food (no, after you…) so I’m likely to starve. It’s not something I like to dwell on so I’ll return to my original theme.

Motorway into central Wellington (in lockdown a few months ago, in case you hadn’t guessed – normally packed with cars all day)

Driving in New Zealand can be challenging. Out of a major city there aren’t many roads, so if a lot of people are trying to get somewhere… well, you work it out. Much is made of the ‘Road Toll’ (the number of people who perish on our roads), especially over holiday weekends, and statistically you are almost twice as likely to be involved in a fatal accident on a New Zealand road than on a British road. It’s depressing reading, but it’s even more depressing to hear the repeated mantra that the state of our roads is to blame. True, they can be terrible, and I’ll come back to that later, but a truth that shouldn’t be ignored is that, for all their many good attributes, a lot of Kiwis are shocking drivers. I can’t remember the last time I was in a car and didn’t see an example of such careless driving I had to hold my breath until the perceived danger had passed.

Aftermath of a day driving in NZ

I’m not claiming immunity here. In my previous life I drove quite aggressively, not in a yelling at people or being intimidating way, but I was as guilty as anyone at travelling over the mandated speed limit on a three-lane motorway. I was always alert to any opportunity to gain time on my journey, albeit in a safe way – I have a deep survival instinct. Now I find driving in Britain too frenetic and here in NZ I’m positively passive. I pull over if someone clearly wants to get somewhere faster than me, and hang a long way back behind someone who is all over the place and thinks the white line is something to drive along rather than stay one side of. Some cars seem to have permanently broken indicators and mirrors that reflect only the driver’s image; if I don’t check my rear view and side mirrors every thirty seconds I hear the voice of my long-ago driving instructor telling me how many seconds ‘overdue’ I am and, like most who learned to drive in Britain in the eighties, Mirror-Signal-Manoeuvre, is etched on my brain.

It is true that there are exacerbating circumstances – the roads aren’t always that great. It’s not too obvious when you’re driving a newer car with multiple safety features and good soundproofing, and until we drove a hire van to Ohakune I hadn’t realised what a bone-jarring, teeth-rattling adventure ride parts of even SH1 can be. Outside cities the main highway isn’t smooth shiny tarmac and many country roads are chip-seal, where the road is painted with sticky stuff onto which truckloads of small stones are dropped. Most of these don’t stick, instead launching themselves towards your windscreen as you drive, or bouncing onto your bonnet to chip off a nice bit of paint. Others gather at the side of the road like a gang of highwaymen, lying in wait until a careless driver strays too close, when they skitter from under the wheels as the car skitters all over the road.

No matter how challenging the road, a driver should drive to their ability and be able to stay in control of their car if there is a problem. A few Kiwis think they’re race drivers without thinking that they aren’t on a first-class race track. I’m speaking here from personal experience, and there are many good and safe drivers on Kiwi roads who know how to handle their vehicles and take care when doing so (thankfully I include all but one of my friends in this group). There are idiots everywhere but even on the fastest roads in Germany, even with the aggression of Italian drivers, even considering how ridiculously busy British roads are, drivers there seem so much better equipped to handle their cars. And, yes, I do know Kiwis who agree with me.

My final point: not long after our life in NZ began I was unfortunate to be in an ambulance. As it turned into ED (A&E, ER) a car was stopped right by the sign that read No parking. Ambulances only. The ambulance driver tooted, whereupon an arm came out of the errant car’s driver side, middle finger extended. The paramedic had to get out and yell at the bloke to shift his car. His colleague shook his head as the argument raged: ‘I’ve driven ambulances in a lot of countries but Kiwi drivers – worst in the world.’ I rest my case. (And await censure from my Kiwi friends.)

Oops, not my final point! Lacking pictures of driving/roads, Neil popped out of his city centre office to grab a shot or two and, lo, there was a car doing an unindicated three-point turn in the middle of a busy street, causing others to brake sharply to avoid him. Case closed.

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