Published date15 January 2022
Publication titleMix, The
The roads have never been safe places: you could be kicked by a horse, clipped by a ‘‘scorching’’ cyclist or crushed by a tram. In the early 1900s, though, a new danger appeared, the motor car. Their drivers came with a new idea, too: that no-one else had any right to be on the road. As early as 1906, William Massey told MPs that ‘‘motor cars had become, through reckless driving, a dangerous nuisance’’. Wellington drivers were reported to be ‘‘racing’’ at ‘‘terrific speed’’, crossing intersections ‘‘like a flash’’ and threatening to dash pedestrians ‘‘to a pulp’’

By present-day standards these early cars were difficult to drive well, with inaccurate steering and poor brakes, which were often on the rear wheels only; their drivers were often reluctant to change gear, and claimed that it was difficult and unsafe to maintain slow speeds. Cars were especially dangerous in wet weather: asphalted surfaces were greasy, tyres were narrow and had little grip, and well into the 1920s many cars lacked windscreen wipers. Historians have pointed out ‘‘It is difficult to think of another technology that has ... had such an impact on human life and death without having been intentionally designed to cause harm.’’

By 1930, the Otago Daily Times rued that ‘‘All communities seem to have too passively acquiesced in the gradual introduction of a new menace to life and limb which might be likened to a Frankenstein monster out of control.’’

Who was at the wheel of these monsters? The Motor Hog, ‘‘the hooligan type of motorist’’. The original ‘‘road hogs’’ were cyclists, but the term was quickly applied to motorcyclists and to drivers of motor cars by about 1905. They were said to take a ‘‘malevolent delight at seeing the ‘scatteration’ which follows the toot of [their] horn’’ and were callously indifferent to the fate of those not nimble or quick enough to get out of their way.

By custom, pedestrians had unrestricted rights to the streets, and the responsibility fell to motorists to take precautions to avoid accidents, not those on foot. Yet the impression was widespread from early on that ‘‘the motor man looks upon the road as his own private property — he has not the slightest consideration for other travellers’’. John Christie, editor of the Ashburton Guardian and a persistent and severe critic of motorists, thought ‘‘motorists have too generally acted as though streets and roads and highways were theirs to use as they liked, and that all other people must use them on sufferance, and subject to the motorist’s insane passion for speed and insolent indifference to the immemorial human rights and safety of his fellow creatures’’, a situation he found ‘‘humanly, morally, and legally wrong and intolerable’’.

Reports from Europe and the United States prepared New Zealanders for the prospect of the heartless plutocrat on the highway. In England, ‘‘Some of the worst offenders ride in the smartest and most expensive cars’’. The nouveau riche were singled out, their sudden wealth having allegedly led to a decline in moral standards. The most egregious instance of this was the reluctance of motorists to stop after an accident, what would by...

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