A guest post here by our Ministry of Transport correspondent (who may, or may not, bear the name Spanker Brainby) on how NZ’s most ridiculous traffic law came into being. An example, in advance of this afternoon’s Law Commission announcement on how to make us a wowser nation, of how “interfering, and unduly unintelligent, legislation often results from the brain stirrings of over-zealous (and over-powerful) civil servants” and their advisors.
I drove into town today and heard the news that Archie Snutford had finally passed on to that great traffic office in the sky.
He actually departed, presumably at a safe speed and with due caution, over three years ago but it often takes time for such news to reach me.
My retreat near Whangamomona has become a safe haven for me over the years. I hide myself out there; I rarely make the journey into town – and I have a perfectly rational fear of driving on New Zealand roads these days.
I am free at last, now that Archie has gone, to tell the correct story of how what is often called ‘New Zealand’s most ridiculous traffic law’ came into being.
This, late as it may be, is by way of my true confession.
It was thirty-three years ago today that Archie Snutford and I sat in an over-warm office in Wellington and came up with the first basic proposal for ‘the stupidest traffic law in the developed world’.
It is common practice for the great unwashed to think that stupid legislation is the province of stupid politicians. Not always so! Interfering, and unduly unintelligent, legislation often results from the brain stirrings of over-zealous (and over-powerful) civil servants of the most appalling kind.
Our stupidest, and most idiosyncratic, road traffic rule has got to be the ‘Give-way-to-all-traffic-crossing-or-approaching-from-your-right’ law. This rule has been, at least partially, responsible over the years for close to 3000 accidents at our road intersections. According to the AA there are one or two deaths on our roads each year which may be attributable to this law.
That is, perhaps, seventy or more fatalities since its inception!
Now, when I state unequivocally that I (along with Archie and a boozy Wellington civil service lunch) was responsible for the instigation of the rule you may begin to understand my desire for seclusion – and my fear of driving.
As senior members of the (then) Ministry of Transport governmental sub-committee known as Traffic Organisation For Unified Control – (and, thank heavens, this was long before the New Zealand government was swamped by acronyms) we had been charged with reviewing New Zealand’s road traffic laws.
Late 1970s – heady days – particularly in the New Zealand civil service.
In Wellington we felt thoroughly deserted by a Britain which had already joined the European common market. Insularity, standing on our own as a nation, was the order of the day.
As senior civil servants Archie and I both felt a sort of national affront and a need, at long last, to move away from British tradition and laws.
The cultural cringe was gone forever. We could be better than ‘home’ – the ‘Motherland’ – as Britain was then known - and we were ready to stand alone with our very own traffic laws.
It was a warm December afternoon, shortly after our usual liquid lunch at the ‘Bull and Chicken,’ and blood was rushing to our brains when we started off down this road.
It must have been the lack of air-conditioning that set us off.
‘Change the road rules!’ was our watch cry.
Archie was all for advocating driving on the right-hand side of the road, a fairly comprehensive shift in thinking, but soundly based on his reasoning that we were slowly becoming a part of Asia.
I pointed out that Japan, Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore all drove on the left.
“What about China?” Archie was pretty determined.
“Right, probably – though it’s often hard to tell. More sort of ‘middle for diddle’ I think.”
My reply was somewhat muted as I could see Archie sinking deeper into his daily Dominion or ‘five minute’s silence’ as it was then known in the Wellington civil service.
Now is as good a time as any to tell you a bit about Archie.
He was a pom of the worst kind.
Like many that had come out as Ten Pound immigrants in the fifties and sixties he looked back in anger on the Britain he had left behind. Despite this, he still assumed a lofty imperial overview of the colonies.
Full of bluster and self-importance, he was determined to improve the lot of the lesser commonwealth countries.
He was the sort of bloke who usually elicited the response: “If you don’t like it here go back from whence you came.”
But he never did. He was far too keen on improving life in New Zealand.
“I know” he said – eventually looking up from the five minutes silence. “What about a bit of enforced politeness?”
‘What?” as a level 9, grade C, Senior Traffic Organisation for Unified Control Officer, Archie was ever so slightly junior to my level 10 rating. Despite this, and because of his experience of British traffic laws, I was inclined to defer to him.
“Yes – that will do it!” Archie was hitting his true pace now. “Make all traffic turning left off a main highway give way to right turning traffic…”
“Enforced politeness – I like it” The whole idea of legislation designed to make our drivers behave with more politeness seemed to fit in so well with the ethos of the day.
“With our legislative help New Zealand drivers will surely become the most civil citizens in the world. Good stuff Archie. Let’s draft it up.”
And that’s about it really. Our proposal, or rather the Traffic Organisation for Unified Control’s submission, was accepted in full by the legislators of the day. And carnage was unleashed on our road intersections.
Today, along with the News of Archie Snutford’s death, I hear that the current Minister of Transport has got round to thinking about considering a change to our ‘enforced politeness’ law.
“About time!” is all I can say.
I shall drive very carefully on my way home today.
And I will keep a weather eye out at intersections – particularly for the ever growing number of angry drivers and massive fast-moving trucks on our 1950s style roads these days…………..
Spanker Brainby. (Ex M.O.T)