The waters are getting a tad muddied – why?
Iwas having a tidy-up recently and discovered some boxes of research that I had been conducting on road accidents and tourist drivers. The reason for the tidy-up was because there has been, yet again, more official ‘defence’ of the tourist-/foreign-driver accident statistics. Which is not surprising really, as tourism is New Zealand’s main export-dollars earner, and officialdom is keen to play down anything that might adversely affect the income derived from tourism. The most recent information was circulated as a result of yet another (wellintentioned) petition to government from the mother of a victim of a tourist driver. Her son, a motorcyclist, collided with a tourist driver who had careered off the road in front of him only to swerve back into his path again, killing him. While, in this instance, the tourist driver was actually sentenced to a short term of imprisonment, when you take into account that any person sentenced to imprisonment in New Zealand is able to be released on parole after serving just one-third of any sentence, then the judge should not have bothered, in my view.
As is often the case when officialdom leaps to the defence of tourism and what it means for New Zealand, the usual statistics are trotted out; namely, that foreign drivers were responsible for only about six per cent of accidents involving death, and, shifting the blame back onto us Kiwis, implying that New Zealand drivers are far worse — being responsible for 94 per cent of accidents involving death. At face value, that would seem to be fair comment. But, as I have said here before, statistics can be manipulated to present a completely different story. Sure, across New Zealand the statistics are probably around six per cent, but what happens when you isolate them to the so-called tourist hotspots? If one were to confine the scope of accident statistics to the tourist hotspots of Westland, Central Otago, and Southland, then the accident rate climbs alarmingly to around 26–33 per cent! For those who are no good with percentages, that means that between one-quarter and one-third of all injuries/deaths resulting from vehicle accidents involve a foreign driver! Anecdotally, locals in the Te Anau area will confess to being too afraid to venture out on the roads down there! (I kid you not!)
And, while we are talking statistics, it is mischievous to try to relate tourist-driver accident statistics to New Zealand– driver statistics, especially when you take into account the number of miles covered (OK, I mean kilometres!). The average distance travelled by a New Zealand motorist is approximately 12,000km per year. Some vintage-car / motorcycle insurance policies allow an annual mileage of between 3000km and 6000km per annum. What needs to be remembered, however, is that tourists are not here for 12 months — they are here for a few days/weeks, thus the distances they travel have to be taken into account when deciding who poses the bigger risk. What is also overlooked in these debates is to equate the distance travelled with the number of accidents. I have previously related one of my experiences with tourists during an early morning motorcycle ride to Akaroa — a favourite for two-wheeled aficionados. While rounding a blind lefthand corner, I encountered a large campervan (or ‘maggot’, as Billy Connolly refers to them, because from the air they look like maggots on the landscape), which was parked diagonally across the road blocking both lanes. The German driver and passengers had disembarked and were taking photos of the adjacent lake! Fortunately, I had been going slow enough to be able to get past the back of the campervan, between the road shoulder and the vehicle, whereupon I stopped and gave them specific directions back to the airport. Having got to Akaroa safely (and done some shopping for more undergarments!), I had just left the settlement and was climbing the hill out of Akaroa when that same German campervan driver, having pulled into a lay-by on my side of the road, looked straight at me — then pulled out in front of me!
In 2015, it was reported that overseas drivers were involved in at least 558 crashes that resulted in death or injury. When you drop the injury statistics off, the numbers do not look all that bad. Further, the New Zealand Transport Agency figures only capture data on about twothirds of injury crashes, so that means that, in 2015, more than 800 tourist drivers could have been involved in injury/death crashes that year! A further problem is that when crash data are being gathered on tourist drivers, not just those in rental cars need be identified, but, rather, all tourists (in privately owned vehicles), students, visitors, and immigrants driving on dubious overseas licences. Remember, too, that, down here in the South Island, the police had instructed its staff not to disclose to media the nationality of the driver(s) involved. Why? I would have thought that if the percentage of them was so miniscule, then identifying the nationality of the driver would put this argument to bed once and for all!
Suggestions have been made for some kind of test for drivers to pass before they can rent a car. The latest call is for those foreign nationals here for longer than three months to have to pass some kind of driving test. I would agree with that, as the current system of recognizing an overseas licence as proof of driving competency — especially when one looks at the country of origin of said licence and it becomes doubtful whether its possessor has ever been behind the wheel of any kind of vehicle before! At the very least, there should be a compulsory 24-hour stand-down period after arrival in New Zealand before you are allowed to get behind the wheel of your rental. How you would police this for freedom campers who swap vehicles at the airport, I don’t know, but a check of their plane tickets would be a good start.
And let’s stop manipulating the statistics. If some 800 foreign drivers (or more) have been involved in injury/death accidents in the short space of time that they have been in this country, then (to paraphrase the crew of the Apollo 13 moon flight) ‘Houston, we have a problem!’
So, what if some company loses a few hundred/thousand dollars of tourist income? Aren’t a few lives worth that? At the moment, all that is happening is lip service. The technology exists already in modern vehicles to alert the driver (and the rental company!) as to when the vehicle crosses the centre line. My suggestion would be for the addition of some auditory indication — like alpine air horns sounding! I mean, we already have those annoying reversing ‘beep’ thingies, so why not something for indicating when you’ve crossed the line — literally? Or, better yet, if the vehicle crosses the centre line more than three times in one monitored trip, then the GPS / satellite navigation system kicks in and immobilizes the vehicle forthwith. Then the nice highway-patrol police can turn up and issue the appropriate tickets, notify the rental company as to where they can uplift their vehicle from, confiscate the driver’s keys, and call them a taxi — which would be a way better response than to call them some of the names I have! Hey, it’s an idea! Drive safe, and on the correct side of the road.