On the way to Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park. (Photo: Tai GinDa/Getty Images)

The truth about tourist drivers

A Timaru woman made a citizen’s arrest on Christmas Day after a car attempted to pass her vehicle and three others on a blind corner. An isolated incident that should be treated as such, or more proof that incompetent tourist drivers are putting our lives at risk? 

It’s the festive season, the holiday season, and the season of seemingly endless conversations about dangerous tourist drivers. Hardly surprising, when the media regularly reports on campervans driving on the wrong side of the road or locals confiscating keys from tourists driving dangerously.

Reading about incidents such as these, it can be easy to believe that tourists are a scourge on our roads. But are overseas drivers really the threat they are often perceived to be? Or are we just scapegoating them to avoid dealing with the larger issue of our own dangerous driving habits?

The reality of tourist drivers

A report released by Transport NZ this year showed that only 6.2% of fatal and injury crashes between 2012 to 2016 involved drivers using an overseas drivers licence – a subset of drivers which includes tourists, but also recent immigrants and overseas students.

In that period New Zealand welcomed over 14.5 million tourists. While there is no data as to how many of those visitors drove on our roads, even if less than half used a vehicle while in the country, that equates to a significant number of drivers for a very small proportion of crashes.

Though the number of tourists coming to New Zealand has continued to rise, NZ Police road policing team operations manager Inspector Peter McKennie says the rate of accidents by overseas drivers has not risen with it.

“The vast majority of visitors from overseas drive perfectly safely here and have no issues at all,” he says.

Still there is a perception that tourists are a major danger on our roads. This is partly due to the reporting of extreme incidents of poor driving from overseas drivers.

“There is the odd case where someone crashes due to say, forgetting which side of the road you are supposed to be driving on, or something along those lines. But the percentage of cases like that are very minimal,” McKennie says.

“Media publicised animosity” towards tourist drivers is a common factor in much of the media coverage, he says. Moreover, Kiwis often have negative perceptions of the driving habits of tourists, complaining that they drive more slowly or are reluctant to overtake other vehicles.

But what some see as poor driving habits, the police generally see as a much safer approach to driving on our roads. McKennie says many of the countries our tourists come from have better engineered roads than ours, with more finely tuned speed limits for every portion of road. For instance, our open roads are typically set to 100km regardless of road type, but in other parts of the world difficult sections of open road, such as winding areas, would be set to 80km instead.

“A lot of people complain because visiting drivers drive slowly and hold up traffic but quite often they are just driving at the safe and appropriate speed for the engineering of the road,” he says. “New Zealand drivers are used to driving faster on those roads, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that those speeds are safe and appropriate for the engineering of the roads.”

This isn’t just a safer approach but a more logical one, he says. “If you are driving 80 kilometres an hour as opposed to 100 kilometres an hour, on winding roads there is probably a time difference of five minutes for every 100 kilometres you travel.” Plus, if you drive at a slower, more steady speed you’ll save fuel too.

The driver in the mirror

New Zealand crash statistics indicate that we should spend a lot less time worrying about tourists on our roads, and more time worrying about ourselves and our neighbours. In 2016 there were 286 fatal crashes, 2099 serious injury crashes and 7583 minor injury crashes. In comparison, only 24 fatal traffic crashes, 114 serious injury crashes and 506 minor injury crashes, were caused by people on overseas driver’s licences.

“New Zealand drivers crash at a much higher rate than visitors,” McKennie says. “So sometimes it is a case of having to look in the mirror and consider our own driving before we start getting too critical of those from overseas.”

In particular, we need to be mindful of the largest factors contributing to accidents in NZ: speed, impairment – like drugs, alcohol and fatigue – and distractions. “Whether or not someone is a visiting driver is insignificant compared to those factors.”

McKennie points out that New Zealand drivers are often pulled up on errors which are most commonly associated with tourist drivers. “We often do operations and find people crossing centre lines and cutting corners on rural roads, and what we tend to find is that most of these people are actually New Zealand drivers, not from overseas.”

Why the animosity?

Perhaps some New Zealanders need to ask themselves why they feel such animosity towards tourists on our roads. Is it because of how they are driving, or something more insidious?

McKennie says there is a degree of racial profiling involved in some New Zealanders’ assessment of driving skills.

“We get some instances where people witness a crash or see some unsafe driving and they say ‘We saw these Chinese tourists do such and such’, when it actually turns out that they are third generation New Zealanders who just happen to have a different skin colour.”

“People have had a tendency to look at skin colour and presume that the person is from overseas, when in some cases they are not.”

In many cases, criticism of tourists’ driving skills is really about animosity towards any driver who is not white, a prejudice that is likely to affect non-white New Zealanders too.

The fact is, the largest number of tourist car accidents are caused by Australian, Chinese and German visitors. Yet, as McKennie says, it’s usually the non-white drivers who are stigmatised.

So though the discussion is framed as concern about overseas drivers in general, critics should consider what it is they are really upset about. This goes double for those who go so far as to harass tourists into pulling over and confiscating their keys. McKennie says this kind of vigilantism is “not on” and that the police do not advocate citizens intervening in dangerous driving.

“It puts the driver they are trying to intervene with under pressure – presumably they are driving close behind them, tooting their horn and that sort of thing – which makes them even less able to concentrate on driving safely, and more likely to result in a crash.”

If you see dangerous driving contact *555 for early intervention and 111 for emergencies.


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