Can anything practical be done to reduce the carnage?
Hopefully my regular readers (all 27 of them!) survived the holiday period and had a great time. Unfortunately, the Christmas period can be a double-edged sword in that not only are we out there on the roads and travelling out of our comfort zones, so too are visiting tourists. Some of them may not have made it back to their own countries as a result of a car or motorcycle crash. While I don’t want to sound like a stuck record, yet another inquest prior to Christmas had the highly respected Christchurch Coroner, Richard Mcelrea, calling for more restrictions on foreign tourists being able to rent vehicles.
As well, in the months leading up to Christmas 2014, there was further commentary from various scribes and media, mostly calling for a general tightening of the rules around licensing and rental vehicles.
True, the national percentage of fatal crashes involving tourists is only 2.9 per cent, but when you start looking at regions — such as Southland — that percentage rises to around 25 per cent. Southland is, of course, a magnet for tourists both international and local, who head there in droves.
As I have stated previously, tourism is one of New Zealand’s largest export industries, second only to the dairy industry in terms of foreign exchange earnings. Tourism directly employs 5.7 per cent of our workforce and indirectly employs a further 3.1 per cent.
For the year ended March 2013, the total expenditure by international visitors was $9.8 billion — up 2.2 per cent on the previous year. Spending by international visitors contributed 16.1 per cent of New Zealand’s total exports. These statistics show why tourism is invaluable to our economy — and explains why we go to such lengths to encourage tourists. Realistically, no one is ever going to apply any restrictions — such as requiring some practical or theoretical test to be completed prior to turning overseas tourists loose on our roads. Remember, foreign nationals from as many as 24 countries (19 of which drive on the other side of the road!) can ‘convert’ their overseas license to a New Zealand one simply by producing their overseas one.
At no stage does anyone actually establish if they can even drive, let alone speak or understand English.
On the Wrong Side of the Road
Realistically, it is nigh on impossible to drive on the wrong side of the road when everyone else is on the other side. For example, it is rather difficult to drive down Queen Street on the wrong side when everyone else is coming right at you. However, it is completely different when you are out in less populous areas such as Central Otago, where there is little other traffic on the road. One-lane bridges and laybys are the danger spots, mitigated somewhat by the white arrows on the road to remind foreigners which side of the road they should be on, but maybe we need more of these?
As well, tourists are always going to be distracted by the scenery and unfamiliar surroundings.
So what are the solutions? I don’t think driver education will work — neither will having tourists complete an online test prior to arrival in here. How quickly will someone provide the answers so that the effect of the test will be negated? A 24-hour stand down after a long haul flight makes sense, as driving while tired is akin to driving drunk — according to the American Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. But how do you police that, if at all?
My thoughts are that Global Positioning Systems (GPS) could be effective here. Some GPS units currently beep you when you are in the vicinity of a speed camera — could such units be programmed to alert the driver to the fact that they are on the wrong side of the road?
ACC could play a part too. Presently, rental companies get a discount on their levies if they take reasonable steps to ensure that their renters are competent to take to the roads. Presumably, with such high crash numbers none of them will be receiving any discounts. Motorcyclists are significantly penalized by huge levies because they are involved in too many crashes — despite around 80 per cent being caused by factors other than the motorcyclist. Following that logic, forget the discounts, rather ACC levies should be raised on all rentals, including campervans, to reflect the actual costs of the crashes by tourists! Watch that proposal being kicked for touch by the lobby groups.
What about a sign in the vehicle that reads, “Keep the centre line to the right of the driver at all times!” Again, not much use if the driver does not speak or understand English. Remember, I have seen many foreign tourists feigning understanding when being briefed by the campervan renter, when it was patently clear that they had absolutely no idea what was being said.
Unfortunately, $9.8 billion dollars dictates that the problem with foreign tourists being involved in up to 25 per cent of road fatalities (in some areas) is not going to be remedied any time soon.
In the meantime, as the Ministry of Transport used to say, “Drive to Survive!”