Yesterday, I was on a bus to the university when I saw that a cyclist had been hit by a car. I did not see the crash itself but I saw its immediate aftermath. Later in the day, I saw a Facebook post by AT (Auckland Transport) supporting ACC’s ‘Look Twice’ campaign. The campaign is aimed at helping motorcyclists stay safe by encouraging car drivers to ‘look twice for motorcyclists’. This makes sense. But not all saw it this way. It annoyed some car drivers, some of whom then went into keyboard warrior mode, posting comments like:

“No, how about motorcyclists (some not all) start understanding that they are bound by the same laws as me, the same speeds as me and take equal [responsibility] for their safety and not think they have the right to weave in and out of traffic, how about motorcyclists look out for us for a change (anonymous FB user).”

While I did see some supportive comments, many tended to responsibilize ‘them’, the motorcyclists. They felt those on motorcycles should look out for motor vehicles and as such felt they should educate themselves. Motorcyclists also have something to say. Some comments even extended to discuss cyclists taking over car lanes, and yet others point out dangerous (driving) behavior by car drivers, motorcyclists, road bikers, pedestrians, etc. more generally.

When I saw this happening, I thought that this summarizes recent Auckland road rage pretty well. Everyone claims his/her entitlement and disregards others’, and there is an obvious cultural clash (or should that be crash?) among different groups of road users (e.g. car drivers, motorcyclists, road-bikers, bike-commuters, and pedestrians to name a few) because, in some situations (where there are not designated lanes/spaces for different groups), they have to share the limited resource – that being the road. Is there any research to help us conceptualize this? Carothers, Donnelley and Baird (2000) conducted research on alpine sports conflict between skiers and snowboarders who need to share the limited natural resources (in this case, slopes/terrains). Both groups have their own cultural institutions, and conflict arises out of their goal interference and cultural dissimilarities as they share the limited resources. This applies to the road users.

Has anyone driven in Auckland?

I lived in Japan and drove in Japan. I lived in the U.S. and drove there every day. I have rented cars numerous times and have driven in many different countries. Based on my personal observations and experiences of driving a car, riding a bike, taking public transport and being a pedestrian in different cities and countries including Auckland, I feel like Auckland drivers are generally the least skilled, least caring and most aggressive…!!! Too generalizing? Probably… But my point is that many car drivers here feel so entitled. Maybe too entitled. Super friendly, kind and caring Kiwis become aggro once they are in their contained metal box. What happened to the collectivistic and caring New Zealand culture? Neoliberalism ruined it? This was weird to me.

I saw a sign in downtown New Plymouth: ‘Pedestrians give way’. Are you kidding me? It was in the commercial zone, on a narrow street with speed bumps, a lot of shops and restaurants were on both sides of the street. I obviously saw more pedestrians than cars there. In general, drivers do not stop or slow down for pedestrians even in residential areas, around schools and in commercial zones where sometimes there are speed bumps. Maybe I am not familiar with New Zealand’s traffic rules. I constantly give the fingers to car drivers, especially red light runners or those who do the ‘California stop’ when I cross the ‘designated pedestrian crossing’ and almost get run over, or to those who don’t slow down in residential areas. 50 km/h right in front of your house? What would happen if drivers run over pedestrians? Do drivers worry about being prosecuted? Obviously, pedestrians are more vulnerable than car drivers and motorcyclists in many ways, but I don’t feel protected!!! Is it a typical story of a stratified society where people at the top rule the society and people at the bottom have to endure and swallow the pain? Does this extend to the road?

I am not particularly interested in pointing a finger at anyone or problematizing Auckland car drivers. I occasionally drive too. But I am sociologically interested in contextualizing Auckland road rage. Along with many other ‘resources’, being in a metal box gives a feeling of entitlement, at least on the road. Just like white and male privileges – that McIntosh (2007) calls unearned entitlement – which are systematically conferred upon certain racial and gender groups in certain social spaces, we should not forget about the fact that car drivers possess taken-for-granted unearned entitlement. The city is built for them. Others have to earn strength to endure, navigate through the road/street and sometimes compete against the privileged. Car drivers need money to buy a car in the first place, so not everyone can possess this entitlement. Then it’s even worse. Who tends to feel entitled to rule the road? Who is willing to give up her/his privilege and share limited resources with the less privileged?

It is important to address the power relations and resource sharing on the road/street. Moving forward, how do we put our feet in someone else’s shoes and understand our unearned entitlement when we drive? How do we see the non-car driver perspectives? How about encouraging car drivers to give up driving for a week: encouraging ourselves to walk to/from a bus stop/train station, take public transport, bike to work/school? The road rage mirrors many social issues in Aotearoa New Zealand that we are addressing, doesn’t it?

Is anyone interested in conducting research on this topic – a sociology of the road? I think that the ACC (and the vulnerable on the road) would appreciate this 

Shinya Uekusa is a PhD Candidate (Sociology) at the University of Auckland – Te Whare Wānanga o Tāmaki Makaurau