Rais­ing the speed limit Are we there yet?

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The short an­swer is an em­phatic no, we’re not! Just prior to Christ­mas, the NZ Trans­port Agency (NZTA) an­nounced that it was con­sid­er­ing rais­ing the open road speed limit from 100kph to 110kph. As is of­ten the case, some sec­tors of the me­dia wrote it up as ap­ply­ing ev­ery­where, and com­men­taries fo­cused on that. My first thought was, who is the noddy that came up with this daft idea? On fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tion (read: check­ing of the NZTA web­site), it be­came clear that the pro­posal was for tar­get­ing some sec­tions of Auck­land’s South­ern Mo­tor­way and a part of the Waikato Ex­press­way. And that was it. There was no sug­ges­tion, im­plied or oth­er­wise, that would have in­di­cated that any roads in the South Is­land were be­ing con­sid­ered. How­ever, as is of­ten the case with some me­dia, don’t let the facts get in the way of an oth­er­wise good story! Any­one with a mod­icum of com­mon sense would have im­me­di­ately re­al­ized that there are two — on re­flec­tion, three — im­por­tant ques­tions which must be asked be­fore rais­ing the lim­its: (1) Is the road suit­able? (2) Is the over­all stan­dard of driv­ing good enough to be able to han­dle the greater speeds? (3) Are the ve­hi­cles ca­pa­ble of the speeds?

Fac­tors two and three are in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked, as I will ex­plain.

The NZTA is best placed to give an opin­ion on the con­di­tion of New Zealand roads, so I would agree that the South­ern Mo­tor­way is a suit­able stretch of road to have a higher speed limit, as is the Waikato Ex­press­way. But that is it. Cer­tainly, some sec­tions of the road between Tekapo and Omarama are long enough, but one im­por­tant factor needs to be taken into ac­count — tourists! When the sky is blue there are some spec­tac­u­larly great views of Mount Cook etc. Tourists will gen­er­ally want to stop to take a selfie or two. My ex­pe­ri­ence has been that these de­ci­sions are of­ten spon­ta­neous, and this re­sults in a sud­den slam­ming on of the brakes in the mid­dle of the road and turn­ing onto the shoul­der. If there is no shoul­der or suit­able stop­ping place at the pre­cise point at which some folk want to take a pic­ture, they’ll just stop in the mid­dle of the lane, thereby block­ing the way for the car(s) im­me­di­ately be­hind — in one re­cent case, the fol­low­ing car was be­ing driven by me. Ex­press­ing your dis­plea­sure in the tra­di­tional man­ner, us­ing the ex­tended mid­dle fin­ger, is fine if they are look­ing, and the alpine horns can also be ef­fec­tive, if noth­ing else by in­creas­ing the sales of un­der­gar­ments and/or laun­dry de­ter­gents at the next shop­ping cen­tre. How­ever, yelling your dis­plea­sure in colour­ful words is in­ef­fec­tive if English is not the tourists’ first lan­guage! And, as tourism is New Zealand’s ma­jor in­comeearner, we mustn’t up­set them or make them feel un­wel­come. So much so that when a tourist driver kills one or more Ki­wis, New Zealand sim­ply gives them a slap on the wrist with the prover­bial wet bus ticket and sends them on their way.

Leav­ing tourists aside for the mo­ment (wouldn’t that be great?), many New Zealand drivers can­not drive prop­erly, ei­ther in town or on the open road, and un­til such time as they can, rais­ing speed lim­its is just ask­ing for more trou­ble. And, to make mat­ters worse, we are daily mak­ing faster cars avail­able to the masses.

It’s of­ten been said that an in­di­vid­ual’s per­son­al­ity changes (for the worse) when they get be­hind the wheel, and maybe mine does too some­times, but, in my case, it is of­ten born out of frus­tra­tion, more than any­thing else. In early De­cem­ber 2016, I availed my­self of the op­por­tu­nity to make a mo­tor­cy­cle trip up what is now known as New Zealand’s long­est culde-sac, — the road from the Wa­iau in­ter­sec­tion (Han­mer Springs / State High­way [SH] 7) to Che­viot, here in the South Is­land, cre­ated when most of SH1 both north and south of Kaik­oura dis­ap­peared into the sea fol­low­ing the devastating 7.8 earth­quake in and around Wa­iau. ‘Cul-de-sac’ was the cor­rect term for this road. Between the turnoff and Che­viot, I en­coun­tered just one other ve­hi­cle — a po­lice car! For­tu­nately, I was ad­her­ing to the speed limit (well, near enough any­way!), and I did not ex­pe­ri­ence the usual blue and red flashes in my rear-view mir­rors. Hav­ing said that, there were a hand­ful of straight sec­tions, which, when mi­nus traf­fic, are tai­lor-made for wind­ing the throt­tle open, but I re­sisted the temp­ta­tion (I’m cer­tainly not go­ing to ad­mit to any in­dis­cre­tions here, am I?).

Im­pa­tience is an­other is­sue re­lat­ing to speed. Doesn’t any­one take this into ac­count any more? What ever hap­pened to leav­ing a bit ear­lier to avoid the rush? A few years back, I was driv­ing the MKI back from Pic­ton in a con­voy of other Ze­phyrs. The av­er­age speed was around 90kph. Every­one seemed happy enough with this pace, in­clud­ing non-car-club cars sprin­kled through­out the con­voy. Most of us were main­tain­ing the cour­tesy gaps in between ve­hi­cles (you re­mem­ber? 100kph = six car lengths?). Then some driver (whose name turned out to be Richard Cra­nium) joined the con­voy at the rear, and sys­tem­at­i­cally started to over­take as few or as many cars as he could in the face of on­com­ing traf­fic. The ef­fect of him div­ing in and out of the con­voy, caus­ing cars to brake sud­denly and slow down, caused the av­er­age speed of the con­voy to drop from ap­prox­i­mately 90kph to around 55 or 60kph! He even­tu­ally stopped at the seal colony north of Kaik­oura, so it was clear that he didn’t have to be in Christchurch to meet a plane, or any­thing im­por­tant; rather, he was just an­other im­pa­tient driver.

While the speed limit on this stretch of SH1 is 100kph, the windy bits dic­tate a slower, and thus safer, speed, es­pe­cially when en­coun­ter­ing the sharp bits. One also has to keep an eye out for tourists who have stopped at the var­i­ous rest ar­eas and re­cently re­joined the high­way, al­beit of­ten on the wrong side, as — while check­ing their smart phones and/or tak­ing more self­ies — they have missed those di­rec­tional ar­rows on the road sur­face and are car­ry­ing on un­til tragedy strikes. The fam­ily of one of this mag­a­zine’s reg­u­lar read­ers trag­i­cally lost some rel­a­tives in such an in­ci­dent — on round­ing one of many blind cor­ners, they col­lided with a tourist who was on the wrong side of the road. Apart from lim­it­ing the speed limit on that stretch of road to around 20kph, there is not a lot which can be done to pre­vent this type of ac­ci­dent, un­for­tu­nately.

While the Kaik­oura/wa­iau earth­quakes have been devastating (per­son­ally and eco­nom­i­cally) for lo­cals in terms of loss of busi­ness, homes, prop­erty, etc., one up­side is that, for the fore­see­able fu­ture, tourists in camper­vans will be con­spic­u­ous by their ab­sence on that stretch of road!

Years ago, when I was lit­tle boy, rental com­pa­nies had speed-lim­it­ing de­vices (read: gov­er­nors) fit­ted to most rental ve­hi­cles. Once I was older, I de­bated the need to fit a speed-lim­iter to a Mor­ris Mi­nor! More re­cently, some­one (no prizes for guess­ing which in­dus­try sec­tor they were from was) per­suaded the NZTA to lift the lim­i­ta­tion on the li­cence type re­quired for driv­ing these huge mo­bile homes / camper­vans, so that they could be driven by any­one with an or­di­nary car li­cence (and, in many in­stances, one of du­bi­ous ori­gin!). It wasn’t that long ago that I would have re­quired a Heavy Traf­fic (HT) li­cence to drive my old Bed­ford am­bu­lance. Now a car li­cence is suf­fi­cient.

As long as we keep en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to drive faster re­gard­less of their com­pe­tency lev­els, we will have more deaths on our roads. Pic­ture this: a tourist gets off a plane at Auck­land Air­port, jumps into a rental camper­van / mo­bile home and heads south on the mo­tor­way. They see the 110kph limit signs, and im­me­di­ately think that this is the open road limit for the rest of the coun­try. A recipe for dis­as­ter, for sure. Bring back speed-lim­iters, and raise the bar for li­cences for these heav­ier rental ve­hi­cles as a first step. Who knows, the life saved might be mine?

Hope you all had a safe Christ­mas break.

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