NZ Year One. Day 3

I’ve been driving as long as I legally could in the States. On my 16th birthday I went to our local DMV, took the written and practical exams and took that first horrific ID photo. Since that day I have owned 12 different cars/SUVs, been in 3 accidents and lets not start on speeding tickets. My cars have had 8 track players, cassette players, DVD players and Bluetooth connections for MP3 and wireless streaming. My first car held a bag phone with the glow-in-the-dark keypad that you only had for emergencies. My latest car has hands-free text replies through my wireless phone using voice command. I have taken countless roadtrips, travelled across state to see family and commuted to work in my cars. Family trips, ski days, hiking 14ers…..all made possible via my cars. I enjoy driving and cars have been good to me.

I come from a long line of gear heads and race enthusiasts. I have several cousins that restore classic cars or own garages. I have several cousins that race, either drag or stock car. I spent weekends watching Nascar, Indy car or Rally car races (unless the Broncos were playing football, of course). We went to car shows to see my families restorations. And I married a car geek/Nascar fan as well. I like cars. Until recently, I really had no idea how crazy American drivers are.

I know there are some that would disagree, but drivers in New Zealand are so much more civilized (generally) than in the US. I admit, I was disappointed by the low speed limits on the motorways (100 kph/62 mph) vs speeds I was used to on I-25 (75 mph/120 kph). And the tiny cars. And the expensive gas (currently at 1.80 NZD per litre or about 5 USD per gallon). However, we don’t drive nearly as much as we used to, there is little space for mid-size cars here and we don’t really use the motorways. We actually spend half what we used to monthly for gas now. And, we don’t spend half our day commuting separately anymore.

Oh yeah, New Zealand drives on the left side of the road. Did I not mention? That was a big adjustment also. But not as scary as I imagined it would be. And a big reason for that, other than reduced speeds, were the polite drivers on the roads.

One of the best pieces of advice we received from another American immigrant we talked with when we first drove here was to “just follow a car and do what they do.” Sounds a little strange, but it helped a lot in the city. Driving on the other side of the road was weird, but road signage was even more confusing. Lighted intersections have turning arrows and you can only turn on an arrow. Pedestrian crossings are marked by these black and white barbershop-striped poles with big red light-up lollipops on top. And they use weird arrows to indicate what side of the road you should be on and who has the right-of-way when 2 lane roads randommly narrow to a single lane. And roundabouts everywhere. With all these weird road rules and tons of different immigrant groups cycling through, one of two things were bound to happen: lots of road rage or hyper-vigilance. Kiwi culture is fairly passive and polite, so hyper-vigilance has won out for the most part.

At intersections, people stop and wave people in. You know those times when you try to turn across a busy street and have to wait forever for an opening? Not a problem here: drivers constantly look out for sidestreet traffic and leave them openings. And when someone lets you in, you feel the need to pass on the love. So the drive becomes one overwhelming love fest. I was shocked the first time I drove. I felt like a ginormous asshole for how I’ve been driving my whole life.

The even bigger shock? When we traveled back to the States for a wedding and we had to drive, I was honestly scared of the speeds and the massive sizes of the highways. I was panicking most of the time on the roads. We ended up using Uber as much as possible to avoid the stress. I hadn’t realized how conditioned I was to the craziness before. It was very eye-opening.

But back to Kiwi kind drivers. Not long ago, I was rear-ended at a stoplight by a young girl that wasn’t paying attention. She pushed me in to the car in front of me. I hit my head on the wheel, lost my sunglasses and was completely shaken up. We all pulled over and everyone’s main concern immediately focused on how everyone was doing. When they saw I was so shaken, both of the other drivers insisted on calling for help, helped me sit down and even ran into the grocery and grabbed me a drink. We all exchanged information and drove our cars to our next stops….the man I had been pushed into insisted on following me and made sure I got inside OK. Both drivers called that night and texted the next day to insist I get checked out for whiplash.

It was weird. But nice.

Why was it weird? I have literally had the same incident occur on Colorado twice and both times all parties involved were pissed off (one time I had to jump back in my car, lock doors and call the police). I expected people to be mean. But they weren’t. I suspect this is because insurance and healthcare are an expectation and widely socialized in New Zealand. Your premium doesn’t change because of an accident. I don’t have to pay for healthcare related to an accident. So, when people have an accident they don’t immediately freak out about unexpected costs. They make sure everyone is OK.

I don’t necessarily want to have any more accidents, but it’s good to know that if I do I won’t be punished for it financially. And that systems are in place to help me heal faster that aren’t based solely on my ability to pay.

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