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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Holiday peace is great - so why all the deadly rush?

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The speed limit sign - to some it's the maximum, to many others, it's the bare minimum. Photo / Dean Purcell.
The speed limit sign - to some it's the maximum, to many others, it's the bare minimum. Photo / Dean Purcell.

Raumati beach, early evening. The sun glows in an immaculate sky, daubing the sea with a golden slick from the shore to the horizon.

I stand on the deck of our rented bach. Below me, our 20-year-old is teaching his girlfriend to surf-cast. Inside, mother and daughter are tackling a gigantic jigsaw, as per family tradition, before magicking a feast from the pages of a Christmas present cookbook.

These are the moments we look forward to and cherish, the reasons we go on holiday - but why are we in such a mad rush to get there?

Visitors who envy our unhurried tempo of life can't spend much time on the open road. If holiday season driving is anything to go by, New Zealanders are men and (occasionally) women in one hell of a hurry.

A symptom of this is the blithe disregard for the advice to motorists displayed on roadside signs. Indeed, some drivers give the impression of seeing these signs as a challenge or dare, rather than a warning.

The most routinely flouted of all is "100: It's not a target". Correct: it's more like the bare minimum. A sign that reflected the prevailing mindset would say "100 is for wimps".

Then there are those mini passing lanes which the Ministry of Transport has whimsically designated "slow driver bays". They're nothing of the sort. Slow driver bays are where people who observe the speed limit go to avoid being honked at and tailgated. You will be made to feel like a slow driver, though, because other cars will whistle past as if you're a little old lady on a shopping run.

Then there are the signs telling us that the bend at the bottom of this steep hill is so sharp it should be negotiated at a specific speed. Many motorists pay as much attention to this advice as they do to roadkill or the hand-painted signs announcing horse poo for $2 a bag.

There are a number of these signs on the Desert Road. Just north of Waiouru we were hit by a weather bomb; one minute we were commenting on the amount of snow on Mt Ruapehu, the next the mountain was invisible, swallowed up in the enveloping gloom, and biblical rain threatened to overwhelm the windscreen wipers.

The recommended speeds for the various twists and turns seemed about right for good driving conditions. These were seriously challenging driving conditions, but there were people taking the bends faster than the engineers would consider prudent on a fine day.

Various thoughts come to mind: haven't they been reading the papers or watching the news? Do they think those signs are for cyclists? Is it just me: am I being a little old lady, holding others up with my obsessive timidity? Or am I overlooking the obvious conclusion: they're idiots?

Some are certainly idiotically impatient. You emerge with caution from the Taupo lakeside village of Hatepe on to State Highway 1, mindful that motorists tend not to dawdle down that long, straight stretch. Suddenly the car that seconds ago was a speck in your rear-vision mirror is right on your tail, distractingly and dangerously close, emitting angry blasts of the horn. The driver is outraged by your lack of consideration; by not waiting for him to go past, you've forced him to decelerate from 120km/h to - briefly - 90km/h. At least, that's what you assume when the passenger in the front seat gives you the finger and a bared-teeth snarl as they roar past.

What is the object of this frantic impatience? To shorten the journey by 15 or 20 minutes?

Coming into Waiouru on the return trip, we were part of a mini-convoy overtaken in one fell swoop and not without risk by someone who must have been doing more than 130km/h. Shortly afterwards, we hit the town's 50km/h zone and there he was, a few car-lengths in front of us, his high-speed manoeuvre having gained him less than a minute. Maybe he was just bursting for a pee.

Sure, it's a slow news period, but the running story throughout the holiday season was the road toll. Speed and recklessness didn't cause all or perhaps even most of those deaths. The only mistake some of the victims made was being, through no fault of their own, in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But isn't that the point? Driving on the open road is an inherently risky activity, so why make it any more so?

- NZ Herald

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