What's with the rise in aggression behind the wheel?

by Virginia Larson / 11 June, 2018

Hey buddy - can't you wait 5 seconds? Photo / Getty Images

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Over the past 10 years in Auckland, harm to people described as “outside the vehicle” has risen 50%. Why are drivers so damn angry?

North & South’s art director Jenny Nicholls commutes by ferry from Waiheke Island and walks about 2km through town to the Bauer Media office. Her walk involves half a dozen busy intersections, where she waits for the “little green man” signal before crossing.

Twice in the past couple of weeks, she’s nearly been bowled over – first by a bus, then a “silver fox in a pink shirt driving a black Mercedes”. When she expressed surprise at her near-death experience to the Merc driver, he pointed a foxy paw at the pedestrian crossing light, by then flashing red. But it was flashing red as a warning to new crossers to wait for the next little green man, not as a Formula One starter’s flag for idiot drivers in fast cars. Jenny was simply at the back of the pedestrian peloton yet to reach the relative safety of the footpath.

Both incidents happened at the same intersection, so one morning I walked there from the office to meet Jenny on her way uptown. The intersecting streets are wide, with three lanes for traffic. Using the official “one-higgledy-piggledy, two higgledy-piggledy…” calculator, I determined the little green man lit up for less than five seconds. (I then remembered I had my phone with a stop-watch, which came to the same digital conclusion.) It was busy at around 8am, but drivers had to wait only a few extra seconds for the bunch of pedestrians to cross before making their right-hand turn.

I mostly drive to work and I’m equally frustrated by this burgeoning aggression behind the wheel. The driveway into the business precinct that houses our office crosses a wide footpath. Entering and exiting, I wait for a break between pedestrians; I don’t expect them to wait for me, safe and cosy listening to the radio, while they nose into a westerly with their umbrellas blowing inside out. Other drivers believe vehicles have right-of-way, however. I’ve been tooted at from cars behind me. “Mow those bipedal primates down!” seems to be the message.

A recent report from Auckland Transport backs up our experiences. It shows the number of people killed on the city’s roads has risen 77.8% in the past three years; the number of those seriously injured rose 72.5%. The rest of the country saw rises of 22.9% and 27.6% respectively. And in the past 10 years in Auckland, the rate of harm to people described as “outside the vehicle” has risen 50%, compared to 10% for those inside.

There’s a caveat I’d add to the call for greater courtesy from drivers (as well as some action on tougher road policing, lowered speeds for urban roads and some working red-light cameras, please. Auckland’s not the only city suffering from rampant driver colour-blindness at the traffic lights).

Pedestrians have to stop texting while walking, especially on busy city streets. I commuted by foot-and-ferry for a few weeks over summer and frequently found myself flanked by walker-texters and the lesser smartphone-watchers. They’d weave along the footpath, heads down, lost in their little towers of babble. It doesn’t excuse bad driver behaviour because, encased in steel and rubber, motorists win every on-road encounter with pedestrians. But it behoves walkers to stay alert.

Still, a bit of umbrella-waving pedestrian power wouldn’t hurt. Jenny’s great-uncle Coll would have been a starter for a #WalkFirst movement. As Jenny tells the story, an elderly Coll was negotiating a pedestrian crossing not far from his Manukau home when a big black car sped towards him. He had a walking stick at the time. Boiling with indignation, he stood his ground and faced the car. (Coll was no pushover, having served in Crete during the war. After being reported missing in action, he escaped the Germans in a dinghy, and phoned his grieving family from Cairo.) The car rammed on its brakes, stopping just in time. Coll marched up to the driver’s window, unfazed by the patched gang members inside, ripped the car keys out of the ignition and threw them into bushes on the side of the road. Then he stalked off without looking back.

A visitor told Coll the gangsters were still on their hands and knees searching for their keys in the bushes when he passed by 20 minutes later.


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