With congested motorways enraging motorists and regular appeals to take the bus or ride a bike to work, could a return to "carless days" induce calm on our roads?

Today is the anniversary of former Prime Minister Robert Muldoon's introduction of carless days in 1979, a policy his critics consider an emblem of his attempts to control all aspects of the economy.

Carless days were intended to reduce car use and petrol consumption following the second oil shock of the 1970s. Much of New Zealand's crude oil came from Iran, but the Middle Eastern country's output shrank because of the revolution that began there in 1978, causing a worldwide shortage of oil.

Another response in New Zealand was to ban petrol sales at weekends.

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The Government regulation that controlled carless days.
The Government regulation that controlled carless days.

Under the carless days rules, owners had to pick one day of the week on which they wouldn't drive their car. They would get a sticker to put on their car's windscreen and there was a different colour for each day of the week.

Driving a car on a carless day risked a fine of up to $400 under the regulations, which were made by the Government under the 1948 Economic Stabilisation Act.

Exemption stickers could be obtained by firefighters, doctors and other "essential users".

Then-Labour MP Richard Prebble campaigned against carless days and the petrol sales ban, saying they were illegal, leading to a terse response to the Herald from Energy Minister Bill Birch: "My only comment is that Mr Prebble started this and his comments are so unreliable we don't take any notice of them."

The story in the Herald's archives adds: "Mr Birch's staff would not say if they had contacted the crown law office [regarding the claims]. But the Herald was told it was trying to wreck the Government's oil conservation measures by following up anything Mr Prebble said."

The Government revised its carless day rules after a parliamentary review. Source / Herald archives
The Government revised its carless day rules after a parliamentary review. Source / Herald archives

Originally, the carless "day" was to be from midnight to midnight. However the enacted version started the day at 2am, in line with recommendations from a parliamentary committee review which, among other things, was concerned about a "midnight curfew" on social activities.

But Labour MP Frank O'Flynn called the 2am start a "boozers' charter", the Herald reported.

"Mr F. D. O'Flynn also claimed that carless days regulations discriminated between the poor and the affluent and told of a Rolls-Royce owner who had bought a Honda Civic for his carless day."

That sentiment of inequality was one reason - that households that could afford more than one car were not as heavily affected - was one reason the scheme was short-lived. Others were the growth of a black market in, and forgeries of, exemption stickers.

Carless days were scrapped in May 1980 - and motoring and cycling advocates don't want them revived.

Mike Noon, the Automobile Association's general manager of motoring affairs, doesn't want to see carless days revived. Photo / supplied
Mike Noon, the Automobile Association's general manager of motoring affairs, doesn't want to see carless days revived. Photo / supplied

"It didn't work at the time because people tried to circumvent it," said Automobile Association spokesman Mike Noon.

"People used another vehicle instead of having a day off because in a lot of cases they still needed a vehicle to get to work; there wasn't an alternative so they flouted it."

Patrick Morgan, of the Cycling Action Network, favours carless streets over carless days. Photo / Paul Taylor
Patrick Morgan, of the Cycling Action Network, favours carless streets over carless days. Photo / Paul Taylor

Cycling Action Network spokesman Patrick Morgan said: "Carless days has had its time. It didn't work and levels of car ownership undermines the intent of it. I think car ownership is a lot higher than in 1979.

"I think we are ready for carless streets. I know Auckland did it in K Road [for seven hours in May last year]. Other cities have done this. Wellington did it around the bays, the Miramar Peninsula, a couple of times."