As soon as I leave my driveway I’m on the open road. The immediate road isn’t very open, winding up a mountain the way it does, but if I want to go anywhere else – which I usually do – I need to take State Highway 39. State Highway 39 is long and mostly straightish and sealed and all the things that make you think, yes. It’ll be a quick easy trip into town, why not?
Here’s why not. State Highway 39, or at least our local stretch of it, is a scenic route. It also runs through the middle of serious farming country. It’s the quickest way for Aucklanders to go and play in the snow on winter weekends. It’s a tourist route. And it has no passing lanes anywhere and only a couple of stretches where, if all the planets are lined up exactly right, an overtaking manoeuvre might just sometimes be vaguely possible.
So at any time on any day you can pretty much count on getting stuck behind a combine harvester, a milk tanker, a campervan, a Sunday driver, a quad bike, an elderly person admiring the view, a retired farmer admiring the cows, and the school bus. There’s a law that says you have to slow down to twenty to pass a school bus that’s stopped to let kids on or off, which is pretty much unnecessary because if you’re behind the school bus you’re doing twenty anyway.
One time I was stuck, down the entire length of the main street in Te Awamutu – the whole three blocks! – behind someone taking a tractor for a test drive. I could tell because it had dealer plates. This does not happen in Queen Street, people. Though on average a tractor probably travels faster than Queen Street traffic even with the front loader attached.
As I was drifting home recently with plenty of time for my mind to wander due to the exceptionally slow pace being set by the octogenarian in front of me and the other twenty-five vehicles on her tail, it occurred to me that most of the drivers who come to my attention in this way can be broadly grouped into handy categories. In case you find yourself on State Highway 39 at some point I thought you might benefit from my insights. So here we go.
First, you have your Chronically Unaware Driver. Their distinguishing feature is that they pick a speed they’re comfortable with and stick to it no matter what. Typically they will putter along the open road at eighty and will blithely sail through the seventy and fifty zones without changing speed at all. Possibly they feel that it’s preferable to aim at an average rather than being picky about the details. The risk for the rest of us when caught behind a C.U.D. is that we’ll go into a trance on the open road section, follow without thinking into the residential area and get a totally unfair speed camera ticket.
Then you have your Hyperbolically Cautious (Ususally Elderly-Type) Driver. As opposed to the C.U.D., these ones do take note of the lower speed limit areas. Oh yes. Although they considered seventy-five to be a comfortable speed on the open road, they feel it necessary to drop down to fifty-five in the seventy zone and thirty-five in the fifty zone. No point in getting carried away. The danger here for the rest of us is that we’ll forget we’re driving altogether and take a little nap instead. A secondary (but very real) risk is that, when the H.C.(U.E.-T.)D. finally turns off into the driveway of the Golden Pastures Retirement Village, you’ll feel the sudden release of a cork popping from a bottle and will put your foot down hard with relief and get a totally unfair speed camera ticket, at which point you’ll feel like writing to the Police and seriously putting forward the averaging-out theory as a defence.
Then there’s the Wildly Unpredictable While Trying To Be Considerate contingent. You know what I’m talking about. They’re humming along at ninety but veering all over the lane so you can’t overtake because you’re not fully convinced that they’re totally on top of this driving thing. Then they notice you behind them and helpfully start driving with the left-hand tyres raising dust on the shoulder, giving you room to overtake which you still can’t do because, lunatic. And yellow lines, approaching articulated truck and blind corner. Driving on the unsealed shoulder slows them down even more, of course, and once they realise that you’re too much of a pansy to overtake when they’re so kindly giving you an opportunity they try to show consideration by speeding up to a hundred and ten on the long straight bit – meaning that you still can’t pass them even if the planets are all lined up right – but reverting to their comfort zone between eighty and ninety-five for the rest of the trip. The main risk here is debilitating cynicism, frankly, because you arrive home (eventually) wishing that your car was fitted with a flame-thrower even though you know they were truly trying to help you, and you hate what that says about you as a person and the human race in general.
Tractor drivers can’t really help it, and they’re not too much of an issue. Although there’s always someone between here and school tootling along in something with wheels bigger than my whole car and some giant machine on the back that I can’t imagine the purpose of, although it’s clearly contributing to the country getting rich on butter and lamb, they tend to be going so slowly that they’re more or less standing still. If you zoom around a tight corner and come across one you’ll be in trouble – whatever it might be on the back, it always includes many pieces of sharp metal poking out, usually with teeth – but apart from that they’re easy to nip around even in a pretty short clear space. This came in handy yesterday because I had to nip around four, which is more than usual even here, along the 6.2km between school and home. Four! And I like farm machinery, so there’s that. The danger for me (and probably only me) is that I’ll be too busy gazing at it and wondering what it is and if by any stretch I might possibly need one, to look where I’m going. I imagine the rest of you don’t have to worry about that.
Snow traffic. This is what happens when there’s a bit of a chill in the air on a Thursday and every second resident of Ponsonby, Remuera, Epsom and Herne Bay says ‘I know! Let’s throw the skis/snowboard in the roofbox and fill the SUV with bubbles and quinoa and head down to the mountain after work tomorrow!’ So on Friday nights there’s a procession of people driving in the dark trying to get to National Park as soon as they can and on Sunday nights the same shiny Remuera tractors are heading back with people who’ve worked a full week, spent the weekend packing in as much snowy activity as possible and driving for hours, at the wheel. This has predictable results and is the focus every winter of a big effort by police doing checkpoints and road safety groups with their fatigue stops to try and get people to understand that it’s their playground but it’s our children’s road to school and home. On Friday mornings in winter I can always tell when there’s been fresh snow on Ruapehu because I have to give way to more than one car before I can turn off to kindy.
Everyone around here has a 25,000 or 30,000 litre water tank or two. Like this:
Do you know how you get a tank like this to your house? Two at a time, sideways, on a truck with a sort of double cradle-type shape. I see these often enough and think wow, they’re huge, and kind of unstable-looking but I’m sure the driver knows what he’s doing. A while ago I passed by just after the tank truck had taken a corner a bit fast resulting in a squashed hedge, tanks-in-paddock scenario. I was reminded of this today as I rounded the same corner and met an oncoming truck whose flatbed took up more than the width of its entire lane and whose cargo, a silo – a silo, people, bigger than ten tanks – kind of skimmed over my bonnet as it passed by. At least I wasn’t stuck behind it. I’m beginning to think I should just stay home.
The moral of this story is that you should always leave home early. Take a John Denver CD to give you hope that you’ll get there eventually. And maybe pack a flame-thrower.