Sunday, April 06, 2008


Last week I happened to be out driving home from a friend's place at night, when I came upon a car crash.

Only a few minutes before my arrival, a car had gone out of control and smashed headlong into a lamp-post. The red hatchback had spun around and was facing the wrong way, the front totally V-ed in. Two lanes were blocked by the prone and buckled lamp-post, glass everywhere in the darkened section of road. Some guys and girls about my age, or maybe slightly younger, were milling around, dazed. I rolled down my window as one guy shuffled over, and asked him whether anyone was hurt. He replied that there were no injuries, that they were just a bit shaken. He was certainly looking pretty pale. Other vehicles arriving at the scene were driving up onto the kerb and around the wreck, continuing on their way. Local residents in dressing-gowns looked on from their driveways, unimpressed. I rolled my window back up, and drove up onto the kerb, just as blue lights appeared in my rear-view mirror. I left, and continued on home.

While I had been surprised by the accident, I wasn't surprised at who had been involved: Young "car enthusiasts" (read: boy-racers) out on the town for the night, showing off their "performance vehicle" (read: wrecked hot-hatch) to girls dumb enough to get into the car with them.

It might seem strange for someone training to be an engineer to take this stance, given the reputation for rowdiness and frat-boy antics that engineering students have garnered for themselves over the years. However, I am not the typical engineering student. In fact, ENSOC and the tragic "manlier-than-thou" attitude of engineering students at UoC were a big factor in my decision to continue my education somewhere with more sanity.

The issue of boy-racers has been much in the press lately, with plenty young guys and girls getting into accidents and smashes, getting injured or killed. Or injuring and killing other innocent pedestrians and road users, and generally causing chaos and damage wherever they go.

Even given that there have been moves to try and curb boy-racing activity, such as noise limits on exhausts and locking down certain areas of town on Friday and Saturday nights, I am struck by one glaring omission from the public consideration: Why are these cars—even in their unmodified state—allowed onto our roads in the first place when there is no necessity for them?

Some of these cars are beyond the technological prowess of that which was available to seasoned professional race car drivers in the 60's or 70's. After all, cars like the Subaru WRX and Nissan Skyline have their origins in professional rallying and Touring Car racing. Yet here we are in 2008, with young reckless guys caning around residential areas in their tooled-up rides with 300, 400, 500 HP under the hood. This is just nuts. Crazy. Why on earth is it legal? You don't need this insane amount of power to drive around town at 50 Kmh. (OK, I'll qualify that by stating my assumption that the car isn't towing a boat or trailer of some kind. But then, I haven't seen too many boy-racers ripping down the road with a caravan in tow.)

I draw the following parallel with firearms (the fact that a firearm's purpose is to injure, kill or otherwise destroy something notwithstanding): It is legal to own some types of firearm in NZ for hunting and target-shooting. These pursuits are deemed legitimate uses of a firearm. However, weapons such as sub-machine guns are extremely tightly controlled, being illegal to posess unless you are a certified collector, since there is no legitimate use for such a weapon in general circulation.

I would argue that the same principles apply to vehicles on public roads. You don't need to get from 0-100 and beyond in 3.9 seconds. You don't need a top speed of 240 Kmh. Ever. On the racetrack, or private proverty, sure, go ahead, let loose. In a controlled environment, with the right training, safety measures and expert supervision, well away from anyone who might be injured and where the risks are known and minimised, there is no problem, just as it is with firearms.

Now consider that nobody in their right mind would give a young child a loaded sub-machine gun, safety-off, and expect them to comprehend the possible consequences of its use: They lack judgement, experience, wisdom. Yet hardly a second thought is given when it comes to some young guy* who thinks he's the shit buying or otherwise obtaining access to a twin-turbo Legacy or RX-7. What's the essental difference?

The problem is that there's no catch-all answer to the boy-racer issue. I'd make the following notes from my own observations:
  1. There is no necessity for cars of this kind of capability on the road. The principal purpose of a car is to get you from A to B safely and in relative comfort. This can be very easily achieved with less than 200 HP.
  2. Drivers of high-powered vehicles often seem unaware of the degree of control required to handle them properly, and are more likely to be tempted push the car's limits.
  3. I am constantly gobsmacked at the unbelievable stupidity of some drivers I have encountered on NZ roads. On several occasions, I have had to take evasive action to avoid serious accidents because some asshole was showing off, or couldn't stand the thought of having to slow down behind someone doing the legal limit. Just last week, for example, a guy in a car sitting on the side of the road did a U-turn across my path in an 80 Kmh zone, without either bothering to look in his mirrors or indicate. I found out that the brakes in the car I was driving work very well under load. Had I not braked when I did, I would have ploughed into his driver's door at 80 K. I'll bet there's not much comeback from that.

My points are these: That there are insufficient controls in place for these vehicles at a legal level, that and standard driver training is out of touch with the technology legally available to inexperienced drivers. A limit on the legal horsepower of vehicles available in this country might be a good idea. Or maybe have a graduated scheme for less restriction on horsepower with increasing driver training.

Without the right skills, only luck seperates a few minor scratches and a dented bumper from an explosive mingling of glass, bone, blood and metal; from a close call to a death, be it the driver's, the passenger's, the pedestrian's, or all of the above.

Hopefully the guys and girls in the red hatchback realise just how close.

* I have singled out guys, because by-and-large most racers are guys. However, there are girl-racers too, even to the extent that they are represented by their own group. Just goes to prove that in this so-called age of equality, neither gender has a monopoly on idiocy.


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