Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Every which way but right

No sooner has our shiny new government taken office, but it's already addressing the most burning issues of the nation. But the nation seems to have lost interest in the economy, and has moved on to a much more immediate preoccupation: the so-called "right-hand rule" on the road.

For the benefit of those readers who have the misfortune not to live in New Zealand, some explanation will be needed here.

First: we drive on the left. That means that you 'Murricans will have to mentally switch "right" and "left" throughout the following. As far as you're concerned, I'm talking about a "left-hand rule". Right -- I mean, okay?

Now, there's a bizarre rule on New Zealand roads about who has priority at certain turns. As near as I can make out after a mere four years of driving here, it goes like this:
  • When you're on a main road and about to turn left down a lesser road, and someone is coming from the opposite direction and signalling to turn right down the same road, assuming they're not signalling to change lane or to overtake, because after all you know that don't you, to say nothing of the Schrodinger-like uncertainty that arises when there are two turnings close together -- you're supposed to give way to them.
Yes, you read that correctly. No, it doesn't make a lick of sense.

"Give way to the right" is the mantra. The theory, in so far as there is one, seems to be that that's what you do at roundabouts, so applying the same rule to intersections means there's one less thing for drivers to remember.

Now, this in itself is quite counter-intuitive enough for me. It goes against the road rules of every other country in the known universe, all of which wisely and naturally refrain from asking drivers to hold up the stream of traffic behind them while someone else makes a turn across their line of travel. (I'm pretty sure every traffic system since the Sumerian Empire has had a better rule than this.) But it gets really fraught when there's more than one lane of traffic in each direction; then, of course, if Alice is turning left and Bob is waiting to turn right, there may be a third person (Charlie) in the lane to Alice's right, who is not turning and therefore under no obligation to give way to Bob, in which case Alice would be a fool to wait, especially as there may be any amount of traffic (Dan, Ellie, Frank, Giselle etc.) following close behind Charlie.

Even on a single-lane road, imagine you're in Charlie's position behind Alice. You see Alice signalling left, then slowing. Visibility is none too good, there may be a turning on the left coming but you can't see it; for all you know, Alice may just be stopping because her kid in the back seat is carsick. There's room to overtake. Do you start moving to the centre of the road, oops, too late, that maniac Dan's already overtaking you...

Or imagine you're in Bob's position, turning right, and you see Alice signalling to turn left. In theory, you're supposed to think "Great!", dart across in front of her, and everyone goes their merry way. In practice, the thoughts that run through your mind are more like:
"She's supposed to stop, but maybe she's a foreigner, lots of them don't know that rule, how much of a hurry is she in, what about the traffic behind her, is she stopping, how fast is Charlie going, does Alice think I've got time to make the turn, is she going to go first, oh god where did that kid come from?"
But the worst position is Alice's. She has to look out for the oncoming traffic (Bob), the traffic in the other lane beside her (Charlie) and the guy immediately behind her (Dan). When little -- let's see, what were we up to, okay -- when little Harry darts across the road she's about to turn into, his chances aren't good.

In short: thanks to the right-hand rule, what should be the simplest manoeuvre on the road routinely becomes a multi-player game of chicken.

There's a lot of support for changing it. Motorist groups, police and highway planners alike all pleaded with the previous government to scrap the damn' thing. And with a new government in office, they're losing no time in raising it again. Apparently the previous government liked the rule for some reason, probably to do with Kiwi Exceptionalism (or Sheer Bloody-Mindedness, as it might also be called -- certainly, the comments in the Herald defending the current rule seem to have a hint of that mindset).

If the new government does change it, it'll earn some starting credit from me.


Anonymous said...

I'd like a diagram of this hypothetical situation.

Vetinarii said...

Dammit, if you need a diagram then I haven't done a good enough job.

There's one on the website (the first link above), though it's not very good -- I think because the rule itself makes no freakin' sense...

Myrtone said...

Quite a bit late, given that the rule has already changed. First of all, as long as everybody follows one set of rules, whatever they are, there should be no collisions.
But in order to expect everyone to adhere to the rules, there needs to be a mininum standard of physical ability and the rules and tools need to be such that all drivers are inherently capable of understanding them.
For example, road users are not requerid to pass a colour vision test and so the rules, signs signals and markings should require no colour vision to understand.
Imagine a give way system where vehicles painted in certain colours had precedence (at uncontrolled intersections) over vehicles painted in certain other colours! For example, imagine that green cars were to give way to red ones!
Road users are also not required to pass a stereo vision test.