Sunday, 3 October 2010

Post#158 Drive to Stay Alive in New South Wales and the ACT

Eastern Staters like to disparage the driving skills of Western Australians and the recent events of the election campaign prompted my memory on this subject when scenes of Eastern cities kept being shown on the screen.

Tony Abbott was nearly wiped out when visiting a patch of undeveloped land for some election stunt a few months back. His driver indicated and stopped on a major highway to turn right and a semi-trailer nearly ran him over. The owner of the trucking company later maintained that Abott's driver should have pulled off the road on the left verge and waited for the road to clear before trying the manouevre. Like who owns the road?

This sort of brutal reasoning is the norm for Eastern Australian driving. I spent three weeks in the ACT in 1989 and got a good look at it from close hand. I doubt that it's become more merciful since then. Canberra is a beautiful city which has been planned from scratch for facility of travel. Wide, well-designed roads carry the comparatively light traffic through large systems of roundabouts. Sounds good doesn't it? In fact, a drive through Canberra is like a trip through a theme park recreating the battle of the Kursk Salient. As a temporary resident I relied on the buses but, on a couple of occasions, had to resort to taxis to reach meetings on time. These taxi-drives provided a ground-level view of the maniacal behaviour of the locals. The roundabouts, which are supposed to be traffic-calmers were the worst. The approach was to simply point the vehicle into the entry-path, regardless of traffic, then accelerate like a starship approaching a jump-gate. The driver maintains a stony forward stare while depressing the horn to maximum volume. All other traffic in the roundabout does the same. Fists are shaken out windows, single and double finger gestures are made and there is a constant background of shouts of "You fuckin' wanker", "Arsehole", "Fuckwit" and other traditional Australian greetings. Exiting is the reverse; no matter what lane you are in, point the vehicle at the desired exit, indicate and depress the horn. Accelerate to maximum speed. This mayhem should produce massive carnage but they manage to dodge around each other miraculously.

 In New South Wales proper I once stood on the verge of Darlinghurst Road in central Sydney and was spellbound by the impenetrable river of vehicles passing by. It looked like a volcanic lava flow of metal rather than traffic. No more than 30 centimetres separated the vehicles at front or rear bumper.

I once discussed this topic with a woman from NSW whom I met in Canberra and she said she "really enjoyed the agressive quality of driving" in NSW. I saw a sample of this agression outside the domestic terminal of Sydney airport when I was waiting with some colleagues in the law enforcement community for a vehicle to take us across the tarmac to a meeting in the Federal Police office. It was about 7:30 am and there was practically no traffic on the road. A few people sauntered over to a drop-off/pick-up stand next to the road from which vehicles collected them at intervals. I noticed and became fascinated by the behaviour of the drivers. The only things that I can compare it to are the action in the pits at Grand Prix races or the style of get-away drivers leaving the scenes of bank robberies. The cars would roar in, scream to a halt, the boarding passenger would rip open a door, hurl in their baggage, leap aboard and slam the door. The car would then blast off with massive thrashing of the engine and frantic working of the transmission with snarls of acceleration and bursts of dark smoke from the exhaust. The road was usually completely bare of other traffic and there was no competition for them. I called the attention of the others to this and they observed that it was perfectly normal in Sydney.

I also rode with a colleague in Canberra in his private car and noticed that, despite the light traffic, he accelerated towards each set of traffic lights before pulling to a hard stop at the red light. As there was no traffic worth a damn this achieved nothing in terms of advancing his was force of habit. An old school-mate of Greek ancestry once told me that the same practice applies in the old country and that he had a torrid time visiting the place because of it. He was blessed with having a cousin in the police in Athens and rode with him in his police jeep through the city on several occasions. He was obliged to put his hand over his eyes as though rubbing them because of the drag-racing to each stop-light. "Someone like me couldn't survive there", he said. At least in Athens the style may have some use.

The Eastern proponents of this style argue that the comparatively soft Western Australian approach would slow traffic to catastrophic proportions. They argue, for example, that when a light changes everyone must move forward simultaneously rather than waiting for the vehicle ahead to move. To my enquiry "What if a vehicle stalls or has broken down?" they respond with a perplexed stare.

Since I began composing this post the following has happened and this. There is a simple and eternal truth in this matter: Impact force equals mass multiplied by velocity. The faster you go, the harder you hit. That is my answer to those who find the WA driving style too timid for their taste.

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