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It seems that one of the most intensely discussed items on the national agenda in the past month has been the changes to the give way rules. Because I am known as something of a “car person”, I reckon that one out of every three people I’ve met recently wanted my opinion on this matter.
I am sorry; I just don’t see what the fuss is about. The changes simply reverse an earlier mistake and brings us back into line with the rest of the world.
I think the most sensible contribution to the discussion was a small video that was emailed to me. It’s a video of traffic flow at an intersection in an unnamed town in an unnamed country but, judging by the number of motorcycles, three-wheelers, buses and other assorted motorised flotsam and jetsam, I‘d hazard a guess at it being somewhere in Asia.
This intersection is devoid of traffic lights, road markings or signs of any sort, yet the traffic flows non-stop. The old “courtesy” rule, which used to apply to some situations in New Zealand, is in full effect here and whoever arrives at the intersection first, has the right of way.
It’s almost hypnotic to watch the way the traffic, including pedestrians and cyclists, merge, mingle, change direction, give way and thread-the-needle.
I am guessing that these motorists are Asians — that group of motorists who maligning is a national sport — but I know they are not New Zealanders. Without road markings, signs or traffic lights, we simply wouldn’t know what to do. There would be chaos and gridlock. The traffic wouldn’t work.
New Zealanders growing reliance on having someone, or something, tell us what to do, was reinforced by a police enquiry into why Easter 2011 saw such an horrific road toll in New Zealand.
The enquiry came to the conclusion that the toll was so high because police numbers of the road were down a little. Do we really rely on police numbers to drive sensibly — whatever happened to self-responsibility and intelligent driving? Obviously, as a nation, we need to be mollycoddled and told what to do.
Watching the video, I reminded myself of a time, about eight years ago, when I did what many of my colleagues thought was impossible, I drove from France into a hotel in the centre of Rome.
I was to meet half a dozen other motoring journalists at this hotel for the launch of the then new Mazda 6 car. They had flown to Rome from New Zealand and been taken to the hotel by taxi, I was already in Europe and opted to drive. They were taking bets among themselves over whether or not I would ever be seen again.
The reason my colleagues were doubtful of seeing me was that (a) Rome traffic is so chaotic that I would suffer a nervous breakdown and be carried off to a nursing home and (b) only people who live in the centre of Rome are permitted to drive there and must display a permit.
I wasn’t aware of the latter requirement, but from previous experience, I knew that Roman traffic only looks chaotic. The fact is, that while there appears to be no rules — you can park absolutely anywhere, you can drive on any side of the road, there are no clearly defined lanes and horn-tooting is a habit — it all works. The traffic actually moves and nobody seems to mind if you park your car in the middle of the road, across a pedestrian crossing, or on the footpath while you do a spot of banking, smooch your girlfriend or have a coffee.
If you tried to apply the New Zealand system of rules, regulations, road markings, signs and anal attention to who is supposed to give way to whom, Roman traffic simply wouldn’t work. It works because it’s a free-for-all and people have grown up with it for generations.
It is simply a case of when in Rome, do as the Romans do.
I had a rough idea of where I was going and as I approached each inner city intersection, hemmed in my noisy, tooting traffic, I simply stopped where I was, got out of the car, the tooting intensity increased to deafening levels, and I walked to the intersection, checked the street names, went back to the car and merged with the traffic again.
Try that in Auckland someone’s going to threaten you with a wheelbrace in a serious case of road rage.
How did I overcome the ban on non-residents driving in the very centre of Rome? Well, a bit of luck really.
Some big shot was in Rome for a state visit and the police were out in force along the route he was taking. While a policeman was busy remonstrating with another motorist, I simply drove behind him and carried on into the forbidden zone, arriving safely at the hotel where the other New Zealanders gave me a hero’s welcome — and the bets were paid out. Mainly in glasses of vino.
They were in the dining room of this very swank hotel and were quick to point out to me two other guests who were somewhat more famous than any of us — Hollywood movie star Heather Grahame and Mister Big from the TV series, Sex in the City!
If you would like a copy of the video I mention, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll flick it on to you.