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A carless day sticker.

Remember when New Zealand had carless days?

No fool like an old fuel.

With environment-saving measures – or, at least, the possibility of them – increasingly part of daily life, it’s worth remembering one from the 1970s that was so misconceived, so complicated and so unsuccessful it’s little wonder those who lived through it have tried very hard to forget it.

Carless days were an attempt to reduce fuel consumption, as a response to what is variously described as the oil shock, oil shortage or oil crisis, but was more of an oil change. There was no genuine shortage – the world has never been short of oil. There was, however, an interruption to the supply chain following various events in the Middle East, in particular the Iranian revolution of 1979. Total supply fell by about 4%. Prices rose.

It didn’t matter so much if you had the money to pay for it, but New Zealand’s foreign cash reserves would be sorely tested by paying the higher prices, so the government sought to find ways to discourage consumption.

Surely, reasoned scheme advocate and Minister of Energy Bill Birch, if people did not drive their cars one day a week, consumption would be reduced. If not by one-seventh, or 14%, then certainly by quite a lot.

And so, car owners had to choose one day out of seven on which their wheels would not spin, and stickers bearing the name of that day were issued and affixed to windshields. It was no big deal for orthodox Jews, but for most people it presented a challenge. The first carless day was 30 July 1979, and the misguided scheme puttered listlessly along until May of the following year.

Minister of Energy Bill Birch.

For, unsurprisingly in hindsight, people merely drove more on other days to get things done. Or used their second car. Or defiantly flouted the ban. Or, after decades of free and easy driving whenever they felt like it, simply forgot to stay off the road.

Some applied for one of the many exemptions available – the coveted “X” sticker meant you might have urgent business requiring you to drive on any damn day you felt like it. An estimated 15-25% of motorists managed to get an exemption.

Even the definition of “day” was problematic. Originally and unimaginatively scheduled to run from midnight to midnight, the day for carless purposes was redefined as from 2am to 2am. This was due to fears that a midnight curfew might unreasonably restrict social activities. Labour MP Frank O’Flynn, according to the NZ Herald, said this meant the law was little more than a “boozers’ charter”.

Anyone unlucky enough to be caught driving on their carless day was subject to a maximum fine of $400. The first person to be convicted was one Gordon Marks of Christchurch, who received a lenient penalty of $50. He had fallen asleep in his car before 2am but woke up and began to drive home after the magic hour, forgetting his carless day had started.

As regulations go, this was not one that was ever going to win a place in the hearts of the electorate – or the media. The Sunday News, in particular, waxed wrathfully, “C’mon Bill Birch, it’s time to stop playing round” – and quoted criticism from Waipā MP Marilyn Waring, whose own National Party had introduced the scheme: “I daily witness the spectacle of rural constituents making a special return trip for an exemption form so they can make a similar trip on their carless day.”

But it wasn’t the only strategy introduced to cut fuel consumption. Weekend petrol sales were prohibited. And the open-road speed limit was reduced from 100kmh to 80kmh, and stayed there until 1985.

Unlike universal suffrage, this was not a measure that saw us lead the world by inspiring other nations to copy our bold initiative. Ultimately, the worst fallout from the failure of carless days may have been that it made people cynical about environment-saving measures in general.            

This article was first published in the November 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.