My friend came home from work one day last week and announced that sooner rather than later our car was going to be involved in an accident. His choice of words was curious: as if one of us wouldn't necessarily be in it at the time. What he meant was, chances are we wouldn't be responsible, but victims of the bizarre driving style of huge numbers of Australians.
My own driving style has changed enormously since I've lived here. I used to drive with confidence: now I am a mouse behind the wheel. I approach every junction, nay, virtually every moving vehicle, with extreme caution. This is because countless drivers have pulled out straight in front of me from side roads or parking spaces, as if I were invisible, and even though there was no one behind me; or they've changed lanes abruptly, without indicating, so they are suddenly right bang in front of me; or braked suddenly and turned off, without indicating, immediately in front of me; or even braked suddenly and executed a U-turn, again without indicating.
I observe several interesting aspects of driving in Australia:
I can't work out what many Australian drivers think their cars have indicator lights for: they certainly don't use them very often. You can sit behind them in two lanes or more at traffic lights on a cross roads, for example, and none of them will be indicating where they're going. Sit behind them in a designated right- or left-turn-only lane, however, and all their indicator lights will be blinking, even though it's self-evident, if they're in that lane, that they're turning. Or, they'll sit in the outside lane at traffic lights, and when the lights change to green, they are motionless. Just as you're concluding they must have nodded off and are tempted to pip them (but you don't, because it's not done here), they edge forward slightly and you realise that you've been sitting like a lemon behind someone who's turning right. As the oncoming traffic clears and they begin to execute their manoeuvre, then, and only then, do they start to indicate right.
Especially if you live in an urban area, never calculate how long you think you spend either sitting at a red traffic light in your car, or waiting for the green man that means you can cross. You will weep, if you do, upon the realisation that a sizeable chunk of your life is passing you by in which you could have taken a gap year or written a book. And most if not all junctions have traffic lights – apart from in Noosa or Cleveland where there are roundabouts (deep joy!) – and most junctions allow all turn permutations possible, however complicated, so you sit and wait while all turners and crossers get their moment.
My friend has a theory that, once upon a time, those responsible for building roads in this country jumped into the pockets of traffic light manufacturers, who now supply their products in perpetuity. Traffic planners are thus conditioned never to consider the roundabout option.
Speed limit rules vary, but at first it looks relatively easy to grasp: 40km/h in a school zone; 50 in built-up areas; 100km/h in non-built-up areas. But then, the limit is 60 along some main-ish roads ('sub-arterial'); and 70, 80 or 90 on major connecting roads and lesser highways*; and 110 on some highways and freeways*. I do not know how the 70/80/90 roads are defined.
110km/h is only 68 miles per hour. I wish I could tell you that these relatively low limits were born out of a desire to reduce Australia's carbon footprint, but that is not the case. I suspect that it is because a significant number of Australian drivers are not very good, and the police don't trust them to drive at higher speed. Neither do I.
Coming from a country where there is one limit for motorway driving that never varies, I find it alarming that, over just a few kilometres, the speed limit on a freeway here can suddenly drop from 100km/h to 80, then increase to 90, 100, back to 80, then 100, even 110, and so on. Roadwork (always singular) adds even more variations.
Queensland traffic cops are hot on catching speeders. They hide under bridge supports, in sugercane, behind trees, anywhere where they can nab unsuspecting motorists who are unaware that, on a slight incline for example, their speed has crept up. I live in constant dread of the postie bearing penalty notices because, with the best will in the world, sometimes I am paying more attention to the lunatic drivers and inadvertently miss a limitation change.
I rather wish some of them would come out from behind the trees and pay more attention to those drivers whose vehicles obviously exceed permissible noise levels.
Queensland cops are not to be messed with. They may periodically engage in humorous banter or even normal human discourse with ordinary mortals, but there are no witnesses after the fact.
Oh, and beware, driving rules may change when you drive interstate.
It seems all too easy to acquire penalty notices in Australia and therefore collect demerit points – whether it's for speeding or for not quite appreciating the subtleties of parking etiquette. Just over the border in New South Wales, we found a penalty notice on the windscreen when returning to a public car park in Byron Bay. Funnily enough – well, actually, it wasn't funny at all – we'd studied the list of rules before leaving the car and even taken a picture.
Unfortunately, it omitted to tell us that we had to park in a bay nose-in. That instruction was tucked away on a small sign somewhere else. Silly new people to Australia: we thought the list above was exhaustive. We appealed: but, of course, the middle men administrating the fine were not those making or policing the rules.
The number of deaths on Australian roads used to be much higher. Having been significantly reduced a decade or so ago, the figures have been largely unchanging for the last few years. According to the Accident Research Centre at Monash University in Melbourne, the number of fatalities per 100,000 population was 6.85 in 2008, compared with 5.39 in the UK. (A more recent – 2010 – international report, however, puts the UK figure much lower, at 3.8.). The Australian figures vary quite a lot from one state to another: the ACT has the lowest figures (3.4 in 2009), while the Northern Territory has the highest by some margin (14.7). Queensland is somewhere in the middle (7.2).
I have come a cropper many times, either because I've been following signs that suddenly peter out before I reach my destination; or there is a battery of signs and I can't read them all in order to choose (the approach to Brisbane Airport being a good example); or I just don't have the right information to follow one sign or another; so, for example, will 'Inner City Bypass' rather than the name of a place actually get me where I want to go. Often there just isn't enough distance between a sign and the exit or the junction or the merging. It's a question of what you're used to: in the UK, you get so much notice of what is coming up that you can forget to do what you've got to do. And we never, ever, ever leave a motorway from the fast lane. The first time we came across that, on the Bruce Highway north of Brisbane, I became disorientated.
Many Australians have two cars, rather like dogs. They have a large, off-road vehicle for weekend trips to fabulous beaches or camping in the bush: then they have a large off-road vehicle for... er... taking the kids to school and driving to the office. Some 4x4s aren't man enough for seriously rutty tracks – to the extent that Avis, for example, won't allow you to drive theirs off road (don't get me started...). And there aren't too many unsealed roads in Brisbane, so why do so many people drive them in town? I am reminded of the Chelsea tractor brigade** back home.
When I first got here, I couldn't get over the number of 'utes'. If you're from the UK and reading this, imagine the number of white vans on the roads, then double, or even triple it. They are not all work horses, course. Some of them are such a pretty colour, and I'm sure their trays (the back bit) have never seen a tool box. Wouldn't you feel a bit of a plonker turning up on a construction site with one of these...?
The next step up from these is also a kind of utility vehicle, I think, but it may have a name I'm not familiar with. Again, I have observed, you tend to see dogs in the back more often than equipment, despite the monster bars to 'protect the cab'.
Like the Spanish, Aussies seem to love noise (see also, Quiet please, January 2011). Apart from unnecessary acceleration and over-revving and modified mufflers, they'll sit in their cars for ages with the engine running, making a phone call, or checking their next appointment or making notes on the last one, or eating, or drinking, or chatting. Now I know, if it's hot, it's so the aircon will keep them cool as they sit, but it's a year-round habit. If they're dropping kids off, for example, they'll leave their engine running and get out to talk to the parent they're dropping off with in a REALLY LOUD VOICE, presumably in order to make themselves heard above the engine noise and the in-car entertainment. And they don't use the horn to alert idiot drivers darting out in front of them, but they'll peep-peep as they're leaving someone's house or if they've come to pick up, even very early in the morning or late in the evening.
You seem to be able to have whatever you like on a registration plate. As a result, some are clearly an indication of aspiration or attitude.
Cars and utes and ATVs are obviously a tricky subject when it comes to reducing an Australian's carbon footprint. If you live in one of the 'back towns in Bob Katter† country, for example, you can't rely on the bus too much. This is a very big country and distances are huge: restricting a man's use of his vehicle or raising taxes on gas in aid of anthropogenic global warming would be hugely unpopular.
Having to pay to use Queensland's newest infrastructure is becoming increasingly common. But many Australians just won't do it. They'll sit at 14 sets of traffic lights on their way to work rather than use the Clem 7 Tunnel and pay $2-3 for the privilege. The operator recently went into administration, less than a year after the tunnel's opening in February 2010. In 2006, it had been forecast that there would be 94,706 users a day within a year: sadly, only 22,255 drivers a day used the Clem 7 in January 2011, and that after the toll had been slashed to half what it was a year ago.
Having said all this, I love driving in Australia. It's a fairly terrifying experience in cities, but out on a deserted highway passing through rugged country or forest or outback, well, you can't beat it. (As long as you keep out of the way of road trains.) And you find yourself on roads and in country like that very very soon, mercifully, after leaving urban world behind. I can't wait to go on our next road trip. Which happens to be down to the Hunter Valley in New South Wales in about a week's time.
* a freeway is a limited-access, divided highway with grade-separated junctions and without traffic lights or stop signs. The term motorway is used in the UK and parts of Australia. A highway is public road, usually a major road connecting two or more destinations. Incidentally, Highway 1 in Australia is the longest national highway in the world. It extends right around the continent (14,500km) and connects all the state capitals
** people who use large gas-guzzlers to transport their offspring to posh private schools in wealthy London suburbs
† Bob Katter is the Federal Member for Kennedy in Far North Queensland and a fighter for the causes of those who live in outback Australia