I remember growing up in New Zealand in the 1970s, when there was just one TV channel, and Sunday evenings were spent watching something from Walt Disney.  A rerun that was often shown was called Motor Mania, a six-minute short cartoon starring Goofy.  

Goofy was a happy-go-lucky, pleasant chap called Mr Walker going about his day.  However, when he stepped into his car he became Mr Wheeler, a crazed madman who used his vehicle as a weapon, was overtly selfish, and ignored the rights of others. The Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde transition was always a popular one and it stuck with me into adulthood.

When I was a young driver I was certainly a Mr Wheeler, frustrated at slow drivers, racing from one traffic light to another, always overtaking whenever there was an opportunity, even if the car in front was going the speed limit.

After my first child was born, I slowed down, I became far more patient and driving became a relaxed activity.  No longer did I race from point to point, taking chances, and being a Mr Wheeler.

To that end I find all of the current media and public backlash on foreign drivers and their impact on traffic accidents and deaths statistics, as well as their human impact on people’s lives, to be interesting.  

The catalyst was the Dutch driver who ploughed into the SUV carrying a young family and a family friend, killing the mother and two children in July 2014. Since then there have been numerous reports of tourists, particularly Asian, who have either killed others (and sometimes themselves) or had a jolly good go at it. At the time of writing, an American tourist turned into the path of a truck killing his wife and another couple.

I guess these tourists fall into two broad categories – the first being the European/American tourist, who is used to large, fast motorways with multiple lanes, and driving on the right. The second is the Asian tourist, who may be used to driving on the left or right, but who hasn’t driven much, having spent most of their time on public transport, or in other forms of transport piloted by others.

The second group has potentially got the equivalent driving experience of, say, a New Zealand teenager. They get to New Zealand and off they go in a rented vehicle to experience some of New Zealand’s more remote and less-quality roads, including metaled tracks, narrow mountain tracks, fords, tight rural roads and turns, and all sorts of other challenges.

I don’t believe there is a simple solution to getting around this. Our public transport as an alternative system couldn’t hope to cope with the tourist demand either in numbers or locations sought. Simply put, tourists, like New Zealanders, want to go everywhere, and that demand just can’t be met by a bus or train. Neither can we hope to upskill our foreign friends with a driving skills test when they arrive.  

Driving is a skill, and it takes a lot of practice. Driving from Auckland to Hamilton is simple.  Driving over Danseys Pass, or a random rural road in the Hawke’s Bay, or fording streams on the West Coast is not easy, particularly if the only driving you have done to date is going from your apartment to a shopping mall, and home again.

First things first — driving on the left. Much of the world does, including India, Japan, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. However, the majority of the world’s countries, including China and Europe are right side–based. To that end, excluding our British and Australian cousins who come and visit us, the majority of our tourists are used to driving on the right.  

To date, the standard car you get from Avis, Hertz, or any of the other major rental companies, has a small sticker on the speedo housing saying ‘stick to the left’. There’s possibly a disposable cardboard sign on the steering wheel warning of the same. And what If you don’t? Well there is an aggressively painted yellow or white line that won’t help a damn if you or someone coming towards you crosses it.

But what about New Zealand drivers? Throughout my 25 years of driving I am convinced we are the Mr Walker and Mr Wheeler of the driving world. New Zealanders are known to be warm and friendly wherever they go, but get them behind the wheel and they become selfish — always wanting to pass and not wanting to be passed, avoiding using the indicators, and are basically not good drivers.  

Driving overseas is a breeze in comparison, where many drivers have a completely different persona from ourselves. And then there are our roads — many being much more challenging than our overseas cousins. So are we blameless? Statistics are still being compiled for the public’s interest on who is causing the most driving accidents and deaths — tourists or locals.

However the initial numbers coming from the Ministry of Transport would suggest that foreign drivers are causing a higher number of crashes causing injury and death than the average New Zealander (on a pro rata basis). Data from different regions would suggest that tourists are involved in up to one crash in four, or worse depending on the region, but it is difficult to assess as the miles driven and the roads where the crashes took place are difficult to correlate statistically.  

For example are tourists driving further, which could be expected if they are here to sightsee versus going about a typical day of going to work, school, the shops, etc., and hence the propensity for accidents would be higher if they spend more time on the road?

That is not to say New Zealanders are not to blame, but that accidents are caused by a wide range of people, foreign and domestic, and that we need to improve road safety for all.

However, there must be something else that can be done to assist our foreign visitors when they get behind the wheel. The government is hurriedly installing Rumble Strips on some South Island roads, including State Highways 6 and 94. These provide noise and vibration to the driver if they cross them, and are preferred by New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA), for cost and practicality reasons, to wire rope dividers.  

Could modern-day, in-car conveniences be utilized for road safety? Using cell phones whilst driving is illegal (for drivers) but using GPS machines, such as Tom Toms, are not. These are well used by visitors to find their way around. Could these machines be programmed to give a regular warning (in a selected language) to remind the driver to keep left?  

Similarly could an auxiliary HUD (heads-up display) be mounted to the dashboard to continuously warn the driver to stay left? Could these devices also be used to remind drivers to keep to the speed limit and take regular breaks?

Externally, could rental-car companies mount a sign on the front of the bonnet that sticks up so that you could see it from a driving position, also warning the driver to keep left?  Given the differing layouts of RVs and vans also used in the tourist trade (lacking in a bonnet and slanted windscreens), perhaps a varying theme whereby the driver is frequently reminded to stay left. This could also take the guise of a GPS unit and large translucent windscreen stickers that do not obstruct visibility could be applied.

Recently, a 1939 Chevrolet (seen above) was written off in an accident with American tourists who U-turned in front of it and seriously injured its elderly drivers in early 2015. The image below shows the extent of the damage to the vehicle.

Statistics from the Ministry of Transport state the following numbers for the proportion of crashes involving overseas drivers from 2009–2013:

Westland: 76 crashes involving oversees drivers, 37 per cent involving an overseas driver.
Mackenzie: 34 crashes involving oversees drivers, 27 per cent involving an overseas driver.
Southland: 173
 crashes involving oversees drivers, 25 per cent involving an overseas driver.
Queenstown Lakes: 104
 crashes involving oversees drivers, 24 per cent involving an overseas driver.
Kaikoura: 24
 crashes involving oversees drivers, 22 per cent involving an overseas driver.
Central Otago
45 crashes involving oversees drivers, 17 per cent involving an overseas driver.
Buller23 crashes involving oversees drivers, 13 per cent involving an overseas driver.
Ashburton40 crashes involving oversees drivers, 13 per cent involving an overseas driver.
60 crashes involving oversees drivers, 12 per cent involving an overseas driver.
35 crashes involving oversees drivers, 12 per cent involving an overseas driver.

By proportion, Mackenzie sits second nationally behind Westland, where 37 per cent of crashes involved a foreign driver. Recently, the Ministry of Transport said of the six fatal crashes in the Mackenzie District between 2009 and 2013, one involved an overseas driver. Thirty serious and 88 minor crashes had also occurred. Six overseas drivers were involved in the serious crashes, with 27 involved in minor accidents.