A blind Start in New Zealand

The first weeks running in New Zealand gave me a false sense of security on their roads – I’d noticed a fair few reckless drivers but in general the roads had been fairly quiet.

Leaving Dunedin on State Highway 1 burst that bubble very quickly.

The New Zealand road network is a actually very similar to that of Sweden’s in that they’re both long narrow countries with only one option of road from one end to the other. There are no ‘quieter’ roads or B roads and the smaller roads all branch off the main roads and usually have no exit.

Motorways are few and far between, and are actually just the very same main road, but just re-classified for a few miles into and out of the major cities.

Where Sweden and New Zealand differ greatly is that the Swedish roads are pretty much motorway standard (wide lanes with shoulders most of the way) whereas the New Zealand SH1 is basically a ‘country road’ where people are allowed to drive at motorway speeds. The main arterials are fairly narrow lanes, very twisty, with lots of sharp rises leading to many blind corners and rises.

Kiwi drivers are as guilty as the rest of the modern world of driving these roads far too quickly. Nearly every driver takes these blind bends or rises at full speed, even the trucks, when they have no idea what may be around the corner (a broken down vehicle, a slow moving tractor?). This does however appear to be a modern day norm where we all seem to be in a rush and the idea of keeping your driving speed to within that of your stopping speed has long since gone by the by.

What I found completely shocking however, something which is far from the norm, is the Kiwi’s habit of driving off the road, for some reason preferring to be driving on the hard shoulder instead!

This is incredibly disconcerting when you’re a runner minding your own business running along the shoulder of the road, several yards from the flow of the traffic and all of a sudden a car comes flying around the blind corner at 110-120km (the speed limit is 100km but rarely enforced). For some reason unbeknown to anyone but the genius behind the wheel, they’ve elected to drive not in the clearly designated lane painted between the bold, solid white lines, but instead put half of their vehicle into the shoulder!

This isn’t a case of the roads being too narrow and an occasional vehicle just breaching the line of the shoulder when passing a wide vehicle in the oncoming lane – no, it’s just a habit of thinking it’s fine to ignore the law and drive off the road in the shoulder.

One out of eight seems to be the average, that is, 1/8th of car drivers and 1/6th of truck drivers navigate their way around blind corners and/or blind rises in the shoulder. It’s truly terrifying and absolutely exhausting.

Running 50km a day is tiring enough without every time you see a hill or corner having the fear of a driver hitting you, not by accident but because they think it’s cool to drive outside the designated lane and hurtle around blind obstacles in the shoulder!

You get tired of the fear, and you get tired by the numerous cars and trucks which do this, driving straight at you countless times a day.

At least I’m facing the traffic, I always run towards the traffic so I can spot careless drivers and, if need be, jump off the shoulder. In most countries this might happen a few times a month, for example someone reading a map, or texting on their phone who just drifts out of the lane and into the shoulder.

For cyclists, where the offending vehicles are appearing from the rear they really stand little chance. Out of the 19 countries I’ve run across I’ve not been anywhere where the drivers are intentionally off the road and cruising along at motorway speeds. Instead of an accident once or twice a month it might by 90 plus times a day where I found myself with a vehicle driving straight at me in New Zealand!

I really wasn’t aware of this in advance, and thought maybe I’d become ‘soft’ to the traffic having spent so much time on long empty roads across Australia. After checking cycling forums online though it seems it’s a well-known problem and many a cycle tourer has cut their trip short after a few days cycling on New Zealand roads.

The problem is the roads are twisty and blind but long and mostly empty, there’s very little population density and so driving them full speed all the time has just become the norm. You could probably drive the same blind corner over 20,000 times in a row and never encounter a broken down caravan in the lane or a cyclist in the shoulder. So why would you drive to the conditions that ‘there might be’ a reason to take the corner more slowly?

This would be fine if New Zealand wasn’t spending hundreds of millions attracting adventurous minded travellers to visit. New Zealand has some of the most spectacular scenery that a cycle tourer could ever hope to see, and long roads with little traffic volume. It sounds like heaven from afar! On the roads however there’s a real problem with cycle safety out here.

I can honestly say I’ve never felt so threatened as a pedestrian on any roads anywhere in the world as those of New Zealand. The driving standards in India might leave a little to be desired in some cases, but this is generally due to poor road surface coupled with enormous traffic volume. At least the vehicles are only travelling around 60kmh on average in India – out here there’s no valid excuse for the 1/8 terrible drivers and they’re driving more than twice as fast!

Half way through my second week on these busier roads, I bought a fog horn to fit atop my stroller. I use it to make drivers in the shoulder aware of my presence and at the same time politely remind them of the whole lane, next to me which they’re supposed to be driving in. Not many drivers take kindly to being ‘hooted’ at by a pedestrian! But hopefully it’ll make them think of staying on the road in future.

Really, I’m doing the errant drivers a favour. If a driver comes around the corner driving in the shoulder and hits me, I’ll know about it for a few seconds and that’ll be that for me, the driver however will have a lifetime of guilt to live through, knowing that it wasn’t an ‘accident’ but that they’d ‘chosen’ to drive in the shoulder and that’s the reason they killed someone.

I’m using far quieter inland roads wherever possible, often adding many days running to reach the same spot along the route but it’s far safer in general. And the horn really does seem to work wonders!


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