In almost every email she sends me, my mother reminds me to stick to the left side of the road, and so I do.
But two weeks ago, on a rural stretch of highway between Geraldine and Fairlie, I saw an honesty box advertising eggs across the highway, and I made a U-turn to check it out. A moment later, a pickup truck followed me in my tracks and pulled up beside me in the gravel driveway. The man at the wheel said, “G’day,” and not unkindly began chatting with me about homegrown eggs, fly fishing and the Catlins, the down-south region where I was headed. Then he got to business:
“I saw what you did back there, cutting across the road like that,” he said.
“Oh, but I looked behind me. There was nobody there,” I answered.
“But look what you’re wearing,” he said. I had on a blue jacket and green shorts. “In those colors, I can’t see you.”
Couldn’t see me? I get it—no neon colors—but what? Was I invisible?
“But you said you saw—”
“New Zealand,” he cut in, “has one of the worst accident rates for cycling in the world. There’s a lot of publicity about this, but cyclists need to help themselves out, too.”
His advice? Wear a neon-yellow vest.
Fair enough, and while I have not yet bought a vest (I know—I should) I have been riding ever since with my neon rain poncho wrapped around the rear of my bike. I have also done some homework, and though I can’t confirm that cyclists die more frequently in car collisions in New Zealand than elsewhere, the man was generally right: Kiwis are dangerous drivers, responsible for some of world’s highest traffic death rates. In 2011, 8.9 people died in car crashes per 100,000 people in New Zealand, the ninth highest rate in the world, according to a recent report from the International Transport Forum. (Britain bottomed out that list at 3.8 traffic deaths per 100,000 people, while Malaysia ranked highest at 23.8 per 100,000.) According to the same report, “New Zealand had 9.1 deaths per billion vehicle kilometres travelled in 2008—more than twice the lowest rate of 3.9 in Iceland. South Korea had the highest rate of 20.1 deaths.” And the man also was right that talk of car-bicycle collisions has been hot. It’s all over the news: In late 2010, five cyclists in five days were struck and killed on New Zealand roadways. And in September 2009, a woman evidently not watching the road ran over four cyclists at once in Auckland.
Most of these terrible events certainly were accidents, but some bicycle-auto incidents aren’t accidents at all. Two American cycle tourists—journalists and colleagues of mine who, by coincidence, I chanced to meet in Nelson Lakes National Park—were attacked recently by a driver near Wellington. The man behind the wheel was apparently stirred into a rage by the sight of the pair pedaling along the road; he leaped from his vehicle and physically assaulted one of the two.
And there was the highly publicized case in early 2010 of a Christchurch gentleman named Richard Freeman who threatened to “nail” cyclists with his black H-2 Hummer. He claimed to have already knocked two cyclists off the road and brazenly said he’d do it again. Police eventually became involved in the online frenzy of arguing between local cyclists and Freeman, who lives off of Dyers Pass Road, a popular cycling route I pedaled in early February. He eventually retracted his threat, but I trust he’s still a bike-hater. Moreover, his words still hang in the air for us on bicycles to ponder every time we hear the roar of a vehicle approaching from behind. And they also leave us wondering: Who were the cyclists that he claims to have blown off their bikes?
One of the most tragic and alarming collisions took place just over a year ago. German touring cyclist Mia Susanne Pusch, 19, had recently blogged about the dangers of riding a bicycle on New Zealand roadways. She railed against the callous, brash driving of truck drivers, calling them “beasts” and noting how closely they tended to pass her. Days later, a truck driver hit and killed Pusch. I, too, have nearly been knocked off my bike by closely passing truckers–many of whom drag double trailers that swerve uncontrollably like sheets in the wind. Many of the trucks are loaded with stock en route to meat factories, and I have seen firsthand the consequences of truckers driving carelessly: Near Kaikoura, back in January, my family and I saw the crushed and mangled corpses of sheep lining the road after a stock truck overturned.
So who is usually at fault in bike-car accidents? I tend to believe that cyclists, well knowing the risks of the highway, tend to do all they can most times to avoid collisions, whereas drivers have less need to worry about immediate consequences of carelessness. (A driver can fall asleep and his/her car keep moving, whereas a bicycle will usually fall over if not carefully operated. In other words, riding a bicycle requires awareness; driving doesn’t always.) Moreover, evidence reported last year in Australia suggests that cyclists, having a higher vantage point than most drivers and no obstructive barriers to their immediate vision, are more aware of their surroundings than drivers. I entirely agree.
So, is it safe to travel in New Zealand by bicycle? That’s the question asked on this forum, Travelling Two: Bike Touring Inspiration, and the conclusion seems to be “not especially.” Narrow bridges, apathetic drivers unwilling to brake, close passing and road rage are points that come up, and I’ve encountered most of these in the last five weeks. And while graphic billboards placed along New Zealand’s highways continually remind drivers not to eat, text, look at maps or doze off behind the wheel, these signs are hardly consoling for cyclists.
My last words (for today): I wear a bright blue jacket and keep a neon poncho around the rear of my bicycle, and if you say you can’t see me, I think you’re exaggerating. And if you do see me, please give me some space, because I’m as far to the left as I can be. Mom’s orders.