Buckle Up and Keep Left

It was never part of the original plan to buy a car and drive down here in New Zealand. Although, when I think about it, I guess there really wasn’t much of a plan at all. It was primarily a play-it-by-ear we’ll-figure-it-out-when-we-get-there kind of deal.

In any case, at some point it became part of the plan because in New Zealand you pretty much need a car if you want to get anywhere with any shred of efficiency. The fact that I own a car here is pretty ironic, given the number of times I said, “UGH! I just want to move somewhere where I don’t need a car!” in exasperation, mainly while stuck in Seattle gridlock.

A lot of people have asked me what it’s like to drive on the other side of the road. And all I have to say is, dude, it’s pretty weird. For the first week or so I had to drive in complete silence and my internal dialogue was a continuous chorus of, “Keep left, keep left, keep left,” interspersed with verbal affirmations to myself, à la Cameron Diaz in the Holiday, "I can totally do this, I can drive on the other side of the road, it's not that weird."

The weirdest parts are still the right turns into the left lanes at intersections, turning my head over might left shoulder when reversing, and obviously, all the roundabouts. Also the windshield wiper and blinker levers are switched, so I can’t tell you how many times I’ve activated my wipers when I meant to indicate I was turning. You’d think that after all these months I’d have gotten the hang of this but I still go to open the passenger side of the car instead of the driver side on a more regular basis than I would like to admit--turns out it's pretty hard to break habits of almost a decade of driving.

In retrospect, I probably should have read up on the road rules here at least a little bit before I dove in headfirst. But I didn’t, and I’m here to tell the tale so…no regrets. But if, perchance, you’re planning on driving in New Zealand, let me share a few things I’ve learned over the past six or seven months.

Major laws and lessons learned:

Pedestrians do not have the right of way.

This is just as helpful to know for pedestrians (arguably more helpful, actually) as it is for drivers. So as a pedestrian, only cross the street when there are no cars coming. And, as a driver, don’t stop for people politely and wave them across the street. That one has been especially hard to breed out of my "No, you go ahead!" driving habits as a Pacific Northwesterner (see episode one of Portlandia.)

There’s no free left turn on red.

I took a “free left turn” three or four times before asking my American friends and finding out that, no, that most definitely is not a thing here. Whoops! If you’re not going to read up on the rules, make sure you have friends who will. (Kiwi and other non-American friends who are reading right now wondering what the heck is wrong with me, in the U.S. we can take a free right turn after coming to a complete stop at a red light, as long as there are no cars coming, obviously.)

New Zealand is so serious about drunk driving.

Not that the laws in the states aren’t serious as well, but I mean, the tolerance here is so low that there is literally a whole section of wine at the supermarket labeled “lighter in alcohol.” The first time we saw “light alcohol” listed on a wine menu at a bar in January, my travel buddy and I looked at each other incredulously, “But..why?!” Well, then we found out that it’s because .05% BAC is the limit if you’re over 20 years old. And if you’re under 20 it’s zero tolerance, even though the legal drinking age is 18. Like I said, they’re not messing around.

And this seems like a good time to segue into the story of the time I got breathalyzed in New Zealand! First of all, let’s get one thing straight, I did not get pulled over for erratic driving. Here’s what happened:

I'm driving along the main road into town on a Saturday night around 7pm, headed in to grab a beer with some friends. As the cars in front of me start to slow down and eventually come to a full stop in a line up, I wonder if there's an accident or something at the top of the hill. But as the hill crests a couple of police cars come into view and orange cones appear, directing the cars into a line towards police officers standing in the middle of the street holding what look like walkie-talkies that they're sticking into the driver’s side window of each car.

Then I realize, holy crap, they’re breathalyzing every single car. I'm sober, but nonetheless I get that feeling you get as you’re about to go through airport security, when you know you have nothing to hide and you’ve done nothing wrong but you’re filled with inexplicable dread and anxiety anyway. So I roll down my window and pull up (carefully) to the first officer, “…Hi!” I say, way too cheerfully.

“If you could just pull up to the next officer, I know she’s a little harder to see in the dark, but she’s up there waiting.” Awesome, I think, he thinks my vision is impaired; this is going well so far. So I pull up to the next officer and she sticks the device near my window. I stare blankly at the little machine. It has a readout screen glowing blue in the dark, but no straw to blow into.

“One two three four five,” she says. "One two three four five, then WHAT?!" I think, "Go?! Blow?! There's no straw!" She must see the utter confusion in my eyes, “Just say one two three four five.”

“Sorry, I’ve never done this before," I say through nervous laughter, "One two three four five.” Was that too slow? Too fast? I'm not finished analyzing my counting in my head before the officer says, “That’s alright, it's just measuring the alcohol in your breath, you’re good to go.” I felt a wave of relief wash over my whole body, “Thanks very much, have a good night!” Again, way too cheerfully.

I pulled away (with extra care) and proceeded down the road (with great caution.) The adrenaline was still pumping through my veins when I got to the bar and breathlessly relayed the story to my friends, who expressed surprise that I was so caught off guard by it, "Yeah that's totally normal, they don't do that where you're from?" No way, man. I can't even imagine the logistics of trying to do that in Seattle; it would be wildly inefficient at best, and a traffic nightmare at worst. While, I can't really speak to that tactic's overall efficiency here in New Zealand, I can say I only had one beer that night and waited niiiice and long before driving home, so you tell me whether or not it's working.

Chalk that one up to another bucket list experience in NZ, I guess. Breathalyzation? Check. 

So if you're planning on moving to a foreign country my advice would be to do as I say, not as I do, and maybe research the road rules before you get there. Or don't, and then write a blog about the funny things that happen as a result! 

Anyways I gotta go, just saw a dog driving a car. Oh wait, that's right, the left side is the passenger side here.