The change

A note for the unwary: this post involves a lot of visualising roads and intersections and who has right of way in your head. This is Good For You.

I’ve changed give way rules several times in my life. I got my licence way back in 1983, so I learned the soon-to-be-gone rule here in NZ, where you always, always, give way to the right. For my Australian friends, and for friends and readers further away, this means if you are turning left (remember that we drive on the left hand side of the road here in NZ), then you must give way to traffic turning right. (Ceteris paribus, of course. That is, allowing for the confounding effect of give way and stop signs.) It was an easy enough rule to learn, because it was consistent, at all times, and in all places.

Then in 1997, we moved across to Australia, and we had to learn a new set of give way rules. In general, we gave way to the right, unless we were turning left at an intersection. In that case, the person turning left had right of way, and she or he could just zip around the corner, while a person turning right had to wait for all left turning and straight through traffic to clear. And at T-intersections, the person turning off the top of the T and into the upright had right of way. Someone coming out of the upright, and turning into the top had to give way at all times. Again, ceteris paribus.

I had the new-to-me give way rules sorted out and working more-or-less instinctively within a day or two. It really didn’t take long at all, and until then, I was very cautious at intersections.

We moved back to New Zealand in 2000, and re-learned the give-way-to-the-right-at-all-times rule. Again, it took just a day or two, with a bit of caution along the way.

Being peripatetic types, we went back across the Tasman to Australia again in 2008, shed the give-way-to-the-right rule and picked up the people-turning-left-at-an-intersection-and-people-turning-off-the-top-of-a-T-have-right-of-way-but-otherwise-give-way-to-the-right-at-all-times-rule all over again. As before, it took just a day or two.

And then we came back to New Zealand in 2011, and re-learned the give-way-to-the-right-at-all-times-rule, again, within a day or so.

Really, it’s not difficult changing between one system and another, with a little bit of thought, and some care, and some caution at intersections.

Of course, each time we changed from one system to another, everyone else around us knew the rules that we were changing into. Or at least, they ought to have known the rules. So the behaviour of motorists around us helped us to click into the new system. It will be a little more difficult tomorrow, as all of us try to become familiar with the new rules. But with a bit of thought and care, and caution at intersections, and with good will towards each other, I’m sure that we will be fine.

I’m in favour of the change back to the more complex rule. Yes, give-way-to-the-right-at-all-times has the virtues of simplicity and consistency, but in practice, give-way-to-the-right-at-all-times-except-that-people-turning-left-at-intersections-and-people-turning-off-the-top-of-a-T-have-right-of-way, is much easier to apply. Under the simple rule, if I am turning left, I have to keep an eye on two streams of traffic, people coming through behind me and going straight ahead, and people turning right in front of me, who have right-of-way under the rule. If someone is coming straight through from behind me, then I can go left, because they shelter me from the right turning traffic. But I have to be able to look in my rear view mirror to make judgements about what they are doing. So I have to look in two directions at once.

Under the new rule, I need only check for pedestrians crossing the road I am turning left into, and if there is a bike lane, I would need to check for cyclists coming through. But I would have to do that under the give-way-to-the-right-at-all-times-rule too. The new rule looks more complex, but it’s much easier to apply in real driving situations.

Under the new rule, a person turning right has to keep an eye on traffic coming through, and traffic turning left. But helpfully, both these sets of traffic are right in front of you. You don’t need to keep an eye on the rear view mirror as well. Again, it looks more complex in theory, but it’s much easier to apply in practice.

Even so, in the next few weeks, I’ll be taking things very carefully at intersections. It’s all very well being in the right, but it’s still a bloody nuisance, and possibly very expensive, not to say downright dangerous, if a less attentive driver careers into me. A little bit of goodwill and courtesy will go a very long way indeed.

In any case, at 5am tomorrow, I’m planning on being asleep.

A final note for my Australian friends, especially that friend who will be visiting here soon: this means that from 5am tomorrow morning, NZ time, our road rules will be virtually identical to yours.

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5 comments on “The change

  1. Mr Bee says:

    Driving in Britain is another such experience.

  2. islandbridget says:

    I also have moved back and forward from NZ to Australia. I never know which rule i’m supposed to be following, even now I live in oz I cant seem to remember, I just sit at the intersection and then wait for the other person to go! I didn’t even know NZ was changing untill right now, but i am pleased. I might finally be able to train myself! 🙂

  3. shonias says:

    I never drove under the “always give way to the right” rule – I was about 10 when the T intersection law came into place in Aus (I still remember the saturation ads). I do remember frequent Mexican standoffs at busy intersections, though, when there were 4 cars and no-one knew who’d got there first. That still happens in roundabouts at times, but there’s a buffer even if all 4 cars decide to go at the same time. I’d agree that the more complex rule is simpler in operation.

    Good luck with the Change.

  4. Mindy says:

    You didn’t have to do that for me! How lovely.

  5. Paul says:

    So sorry to be contrary but, coming from a road policing background, I fear that you are taking a great leap backwards and that you will pay the price in fatalities and road trauma not just in the change over period but for years to come. Please keep a wary eye on your rear vision mirrors while you are stranded in the middle of a narrow New Zealand road.

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