For Hamilton drivers, a pedestrian crossing the road is just a chance to play chicken according to ANDREW JOHNSTONE.
On a recent visit to Hamilton I was shopping with my wife at a central city supermarket, and as we returned to her vehicle a man with three children in his car drove straight at us. It was a deliberate act that included a sudden rush of acceleration and a grim defiant stare. There was more than ample time for us to cross the lane had the car remained at the speed it was going but our emergence seemed to trigger a reaction in the driver of the kind I have encountered so many times before in this city.
I am not a car owner and spend a lot of time walking, and four years living in Hamilton’s CBD taught me that pedestrians and cyclists are viewed negatively. The supermarket incident was not the first time a driver had accelerated and driven straight at me while crossing the road. In fact, it is exactly as I would expect of Hamilton.
This negative perception of Hamilton drivers was reinforced when I moved to the Auckland CBD some 16 months ago. The first thing I noticed was the vastly different attitude toward pedestrians.
Auckland’s CBD is organised with the pedestrian in mind, with many ‘pedestrian only zones’ and crossing lights which feature handy timers that tell you exactly how long you have to cross the road. All of this helps make it a an easy and safe place to traverse on foot.
The Hamilton rule is that once the little green man starts to flash red, it’s game on. The cars start coming straight at you even though that flashing red figure is just an indicator informing the pedestrian that the lights are about to change and you have around 20 seconds to complete your crossing.
One day I slammed my hand on top of a car that came perilously close to hitting me. The driver, a Pakeha male of advancing years screamed back at me: “The crossing light is red you fucking asshole.” In reality the crossing light had just started flashing red as I approached the centre of the road. Not only had he misunderstood how the crossing lights worked, he seemed to have no understanding of the first and most absolute rule regarding pedestrians: they have the right of way. This incident was not isolated, it was typical.
A friend once noted that many Kiwis drive like they are still on the farm, and perhaps this is key to understanding the fault at work with the psyche of the Hamilton driver who tends to drive like a rugged individualists beholden to no one but themselves.
Aucklanders more used to congestion and crowded roads seem to have had this habit somewhat bred out of them. Up there you could easily go balmy with frustration, the roads being as crowded as they are, and cultivating a more patient attitude is essential to peace of mind.
Historically, Kiwis are not patient. We’re acclimatised to absolute freedom of movement in our under-populated land and our general attitude seems to be that anything that hinders our journey is an affront to our ‘rights as citizens’ – a response cyclists seem to engender in spades. I have listened to numerous conversations where drivers (always Pakeha) describe cyclists as a ‘bloody nuisance’ while laughing about the pleasure they glean from driving at them in a manner designed to frighten and intimidate.
The population of Auckland’s CBD is around 40,000, mostly recent migrants and overseas guests from built-up cities in Asia and India, and they have much to teach us about the art of city driving. They will slow up when encountering you crossing the road and often stop and wave you on when they see you waiting to cross. They drive with more care and awareness, probably because they are used to high-density cities and have grown up understanding that city driving is a co-operative endeavour rather than a battle for supremacy.
When exiting a car park building, your average Asian or Indian driver will wave you on before they move across the footpath toward the road. Your standard Pakeha driver will just pull out, scattering unwary walkers who then have to either wait for the car to pull out into traffic or negotiate a way around it in order to continue on their way.
While Auckland Pakeha don’t speed up at the sight of you, neither are they bothered if you are halfway across a road, they will drive on as if you aren’t there. While Aucklanders lack the aggression of Hamiltonians they are still lacking an elemental awareness of those beyond the inner sanctum of the car.
It has often been said that Kiwis are the nicest people in the world until they get behind the wheel of a car and not being a driver I have often the occasion to experience this first hand as an observing passenger. The standard Pakeha driver flings the vehicle about with scant regard for other drivers, let alone pedestrians and cyclists, whose presence elicits a squawk of frustration from the driver always desperately in a hurry to get nowhere fast.
My migrant friends, mostly Indian, have an entirely different attitude. They drive with a great deal more awareness of other people and their needs. For these drivers courtesy and patience is an inbuilt virtue and if by some chance you time your road crossing badly, there is no blaring of horns and rude hand gestures, rather a smile of understanding that says: “We all make mistakes.”
I don’t know for sure what is going on in Hamilton but there is something untoward in the driving culture, something unpleasant, aggressive and reactionary.
Perhaps the problem is patience or to be precise, a lack of it. A virtue born of necessity, Hamiltonians have had scant need to cultivate patience on the city’s fast-flowing and uncrowded roads and the result is an unsophisticated and impatient driver who often makes the Hamilton visit a less than pleasant one.