Thursday, September 30, 2010

Thoughts on Changes to "Give way rules" on NZ Roads... (A rant on NZ roads)

I remember that a few months ago, they debated looking into these changing the so called "Give Way" rules on NZ roads. Back then, I thought they said they were giving up the idea for "quite some time" still. Fast forward a few months, and bang!

The main changes are the following:
1) At a "straight through" intersection, where one car sits in the middle of the road to make a big right turn through the oncoming traffic, while the other one takes a small left turn around the corner, the left-turner gets ROW (right of way) under the new laws.
2) At a "T-bar", the car in the straight turning into the side road will have ROW instead of the car sitting in the side road under the new laws.

Case 1

I guess for most people, the beef with the new laws is with 1). At least this is where I have a few grudges about the changes.

Although the current law has does increase the "driver burden" for deciding who should be able to turn, it is not totally merit-less with our current roading infrastructure IMO. The status quo now is that:
- the left-turners need to be cunning + opportunistic, slipping around the corner as soon as they see a long line-up of straight-through traffic behind them, as there's no way the right turner can turn under such circumstances
- the right-turners need to either be lucky or hope for an intersection with a special right-turn traffic signal and then wait until they are first in line there.

Luck is needed, as you need to wait for a break in the straight-through traffic. On most roads, especially the busier ones, this only happens AFTER the light turns red (experience has taught me time and time again that you can never be totally sure if a car will stop during an orange light, but by the time that happens, the light is red already). This is probably the only chance you have of turning, and under the current laws, you're allowed to trump the sneaky left-turners who should already have had ample time to sneak around while you waited. Now, under the new laws, the left-turners would get ROW, so you'll effectively lose your chance to get through the single gap in the traffic, meaning that you must wait till the lights turn red before being able to have any hope of moving.

The other alternative solution for right-turning traffic is dedicated right-turn traffic signals. Unfortunately, Christchurch at least has a chronic lack of them IMO. In the few intersections where we do have them, I reckon the turning time is far too short (it's enough for 1.5 cars on average, or up to 4 +/- 1 on-to-it cars travelling bumper to bumper and speeding through the orange light). Having spent quite a few nail-biting rush-hour mornings in these intersections, I'd like to name and shame a few (hopefully someone from Christchurch City Council road engineering teams reads this and fixes these intersections):

a) Memorial Ave + Greers Road intersection (i.e. Burnside High School main entrance route). It defies logic that there is no dedicated right-turn signal here for turning into Greers Road from the airport bound side of the road (i.e. for turning into Burnside High gates). I challenge any roading engineer who claims that there is no problem to stand there on the intersection for 10 weeks during the middle of winter (and again during the warmer months) from 8am to 9:30 daily (especially on school days) taking note of how long the turning traffic line is. On sunny days, this might be just 5 cars long (or past the 2nd to 3rd house down the road from the intersection), but on rainy days, this practically stretches half way out to the next intersection (Ilam Rd and Memorial Ave). I suspect a conspiracy here from multiple fronts including the tourism industry (getting people out from airport faster... but seriously, who flies in at those hours of the day during weekdays and is actually in a hurry to get anywhere?), CBD businesses and employees (employees want to live far out and head into the city centre to work, while the businesses demand that their employees are at work before 9am), all of whom have interests to not have to wait for right-turning traffic heading off to a school. When will someone wake up to this problem?

b) Riccarton Road and Clyde Road T-Bar. The traffic turning right from Riccarton Road just doesn't get long enough to turn. Surely a little tweak won't have too much impact during these times of day...

Case 2
The fact that this has to be mentioned as a "change" baffles me. As far as I'm concerned, this has ALWAYS been the status quo, the understanding that everybody on the road just has, and is the only way that feels right.

Let's analyse it:
- the car on main road right-turning into side road (A), is usually sitting IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD without any special lane or whatnot (in some isolated cases, there might be a special turning bay, but that's still in the middle of the road). Hence, it's really in a precarious position with the straight-through traffic passing by either side, often at a furious pace.
- the car on the side road right-turning into the main road (B), is comfortably sitting cocooned within the side road, with the only danger really coming from stuff from the main road plowing into it, or being pushed out.
- in addition to being at risk of being hit by passing straight-through traffic, A also has to contend with B hitting it as it turns out. This actually is unavoidable the way such T-bar intersections are designed and work, as A needs to have its head past the driver side of B to be able to turn into the lane beside B, but when B turns, it will head into that very space.
- in practice, I personally NEVER try to turn like B, as IMO it's usually impossible to find a break in the traffic (and if you do, it takes like 5-10 minutes), with long queues forming for that lane. B has to worry about straight-through on both sides, some of which won't even see it as A obstructs that field of vision, hence increasing the difficulty and frustration.
- if A can't turn, there is absolutely no way that B can turn.

Hence, in the interests of the greatest safety and practicality, A always gets ROW and B just has to sit and wait to be lucky. That's what I've always done. That's what everybody I know does. That's what everybody on the road I've seen does. And yet, they tell us that actually the law actually didn't say we're allowed to do it until now. Crazy but about time!

Other roading issues
Now, there are a few other idiocies the NZ roading engineers have inflicted on motorists here.

1) There are some intersections that don't have any traffic lights at all.
Some are just small roads feeding off main roads, which really are impossible to turn into except by all your lucky stars being in alignment (I've given up on these, and tend to just take traffic-lighted routes instead these days, even if it means waiting to move at times). These aren't the main issue though.

I'm really talking about roundabouts: big monolithic and uncontrolled intersections with a round disk in the middle, and traffic feeding in + whizzing around at crazy speeds.

In all honesty, driving around roundabouts is really a big hit and miss game. Going into a roundabout, you never know when something is going to shoot in and hit you even if you made sure that there wasn't anything visibly coming towards you when you entered (stuff ahead of you usually does that, but there are also cars obscured by tall greenery growing in the middle that whip around super quick with accelerator at flat down). It's at its worst when the roads feeding in are all 80 kph (near the airport), when its almost certain near death.

Also, it's quite amazing how buses can manage to gyrate around some of the smaller ones in suburban areas (Glandovy Rd/Straven Rd one in Merivale, and many of the rabbit-warren Avonhead lanes residential streets) without tipping over or getting stranded halfway. I still remember sitting in the front row watching a bus driver tackling such a roundabout: it was really a testament to the skill of these guys that bus routes can pass through these wretched things.

It also doesn't help that to get to several key destinations, you must pass through some roundabouts (i.e. Riccarton Road down to City Centre). That big roundabout is big and dangerous, with cars shooting out and about really fast, but in such an important place. On average, several times a month there are crashes there, with shattered glass and broken concrete blocks on the base of the disk being prime evidence of these events.

IMO, it and its dangerous round brethren really should have been replaced by traffic lights years ago. There is really no place for these in modern roading networks. They are a blotched idiom from times long gone.

2) Highways
The so-called "highways" in NZ are a joke. They aren't really elevated off the surround ground at all, and many of them certainly aren't suitable for driving at high speed.

Here in NZ, the "highways" are really narrow and winding mountain roads. The bends are short and sharp, invert in about 50m, and can have these stomach churning zig-zags for several km's. All the while, some of these also climb vertically as the car banks the turn. For instance, a notoriously bendy stretch of road is the main/only road from Christchurch to Akaroa (on Banks Peninsula). That thing zig-zags like no tomorrow, and has a few really nasty corners that sharply turn while banking upwards (I'm thinking of a particular left-turn on the way up).

Meanwhile, since these are all officially "highways" or "the open road", you're expected to drive around near 100 kph, although most of the bends specify speeds of around 30kph for safety. This creates quite a dangerous situation, with some traffic tending to go for the thrill-seeker 100kph route, while others deciding to go slower+safer. After all, when going up, you're on the left, heading outwards on many of the bends, so one wrong turn and it's a very steep + long drop down below.

Personally, I'd rather they just built tunnels instead. As long as the roads are straight or at least not bendy like the poop of a constipated goldfish, it'd be fine.

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