I decided to take the family for a joyride around the South Island for the Christmas break. Whilst my wife read, and the kids overlooked some of the world’s best scenery by watching the Simpsons Movie for the 100th time on the ceiling-mounted DVD player, I was lamenting the imminent demise of the big Aussie Cars, but simultaneously celebrating the cheap price of gas. Just when the big Aussie sixes and eights are coming into their own with performance, handling, and efficiency, they are heading towards extinction.
I also got to thinking about the police policy for speeding over the Christmas break. According to the New Zealand Police, restricting drivers speed to 100 kph will save lives. This of course assumes that everyone is a good driver, that all cars are in good condition and nothing bad will happen outside anyone’s control such as a driver getting a heart attack and crossing the centre line into you.
The New Zealand Police, supported by the Ministry of Transport, were given a hard time by the media and the general public on this policy. The Ministry stated that overseas research had determined the restriction of speed to just that of the legal limit, with no tolerance, would reduce deaths and accidents.
Now driving in the South Island at Christmas time, or for that matter just about any time, is a completely different experience from driving in the North Island. For a start there are a lot more straight roads, and they are empty! Often there are more tourist buses than cars in the South Island. However in the populous North Island, you can almost walk from car roof to car roof without touching the ground.
The vehicles on the road at Christmas are of all shapes and capabilities. Many of these are slow drivers, vehicles towing boats, caravans, or they are road maggots — I mean campervans/RVs/accommodation vans driven by delightful foreigners.
Hence the inevitable happens and you wind up being behind a slower vehicle. You want to pass, which is pretty much a national pastime in New Zealand. This is because in most of the developed world a dividing barrier (or in many cases overseas a wide gap of no man’s land between lanes of each direction) is standard and it is almost impossible to have a head-on. In New Zealand such things as dividing barriers do not exist outside the main centres.
Also, overseas there are usually two lanes in each direction, affectionately called the fast lane and the slow lane. Here in New Zealand, outside the main centres you have just the one lane in each direction. This means that if you want to pass you need to run the lane of death and cross the white line, pass, and then duck back in. Simple when you can safely pass a 90km/h vehicle whilst you cruise along at 110kph.
A vehicle travelling at 90km/h covers 250 metres in 10 seconds. For a vehicle travelling at 100km/h, it travels 277 metres in 10 seconds. A difference of only 27 metres. Now, if you are following a vehicle, which is towing a boat, which works out to be, say, a total length of 12 metres, plus a five-metre gap between them and you. You go to pass them leaving a five-metre gap, and then when you click back into your lane ahead of them that means you’ve travelled a total length of 22 metres.
That means, following the New Zealand Police holiday speed requirement of 1km/h of tolerance, you would have to spend at least nine seconds on the wrong side of the road to get past. A scary thing if you have ever counted the seconds driving on the wrong side of the road.
If the speed tolerance is 110km/h, the time spent on the other side of the road is halved to around five seconds, and even less at higher speeds. Now this analysis ignores the fact that cars who are following at 90km/h need time to accelerate to 110km/h; but for most drivers who are experienced with passing in New Zealand, this is done whilst on their side of the road as you approach the rear of the slower driver so that at the time you cross to the other side of the road you are already at your optimal passing speed.
So New Zealand Police having zero tolerance meant that many of us who wanted to avoid a ticket at Christmas time had to spend at least double the amount of time we normally would on the wrong side of the road. Now, I don’t know about you but that scares me a bit — especially when I remember back to my old physics teacher at school saying that when you have a head-on collision you need to add the speed of both vehicles to calculate an impact speed and that any impact speed of over 100km/h (meaning each vehicle is travelling at just 50km/h) would result in a serious accident, often causing death and major injury — lovely. So no matter how fast we go on the open road, a head-on is serious and the New Zealand Police may have us lingering on the wrong side of the road.
Then there is the speedo tolerances. I haven’t seen a car yet that travels at the same speed as it says on the speedo. It is rare. Most have a tolerance that means it reads fast — the speedo shows a speed that is slightly higher than the actual speed. But what happens when the car is older, the speedo is inaccurate, the wheels fitted on the car are not original, and perhaps the overall diameter is different? This is the case for my Shelby, meaning the speedo runs slower than the actual. Surely a tolerance by New Zealand Police of only 1km/h is simply too difficult for the average car to cater for and a greater tolerance is required to allow for mechanical and electrical differences.
Lastly — the nervous quotient. Since most of us do not want to receive tickets, not only because of the financial burden but also the dreaded demerit points, we were constantly checking our speed over the Christmas break. Our eyes were diverted more often than usual to the speedo, watching it hover over 100, making sure we didn’t break laws that were being policed with the same conviction the the drugs laws are.
Why is this bad? Well shouldn’t our eyes be on the road? Shouldn’t we be checking our mirrors, watching oncoming traffic, looking for things that could jump out at us (and often do on 100km/h rural roads, such as sheep and quads)? But no, we ended up continually looking down and making sure we didn’t go over 100km. Not exactly safe driving practice.
So come on New Zealand Police and Ministry of Transport, ditch your foreign safety research, which does not compare to our single lane, non-barriered roads, broaden your common sense, and give us a tolerance that is safe. Safe for driving, safe for foreigners and Kiwis alike, and safe for passing. We are not asking you to have a blind eye to those drivers driving all day at 110km/h or faster, but allow a little tolerance above 100km/h, and especially in times of passing slower traffic. I bet you we will all be a lot safer than the Christmas of 2014 — noting more people died during the recent holiday season than the Christmas break of 2013 when tolerances were more relaxed.