"It's the summer months, and your children will be outdoors playing more often and could seriously hurt themselves." This announcement remains ingrained in my mind; it was made on the BBC during their prime-time news spot in the summer before I left for New Zealand. It pretty much sums up the level of nannying that the UK has stooped to. What's next? Hazard stickers on doors: "Warning! Turn handle and push or injury may occur." New labels for nylon pants: "Warning! Do not walk briskly around gas stations, risk of fire." You think I'm joking? A pub in the UK, just outside London, has become one of the first to ban glass being used outside — instead you have to sup from a plastic beaker in case you're a yob and want to shove your pint in someone's face. Does that mean all the yobs sit inside now?
Imagine our relief when, on day two of arriving in New Zealand, we drove up into the Port Hills, towering above Christchurch, with its hairpin bends and sheer drops where the roadside should be. Our first exclamation wasn't, "Oooh, look at that VIEW!" Not, "Wow, we found a road with CORNERS!" No. The first words uttered as we rounded a bend were, "Wow, no safety barriers!"
The nanny state simply messes with evolution, but at least New Zealand continues to put its faith in natural selection. There's a responsibility and practicality here that I felt was being lost in the UK. Once upon a time, we were simply told not to run with scissors. These days they would put an age limit on who can handle the scissors, a speed limit on how fast you can run with them, fine the manufacturers for omitting the appropriate warning on the packaging, and jail the parents for allowing the child to have scissors in the first place. In New Zealand, that same child is splitting logs with a razor sharp axe...in sandals.
We're warned our take-out coffee may be hot, not to iron clothes while wearing them, and not to stop chainsaws with our genitals. How about a warning against wrapping an entire nation in cotton wool?
What's next? New airport signage? "Welcome to New Zealand. Enter at your own risk. May contain nuts."
However, there is one aspect of Kiwi life that I do find a little nuts. I first encountered it a couple of days after we had arrived. I emerged from a store and was nearly run down by a car screeching to a halt. Out jumped the driver, in school uniform, with short pants, long socks, and zits. In New Zealand, they can drive uninsured and without engine power restrictions at 15 years of age. FIFTEEN! I could barely control my hormones, let alone a 3.0-litre car, at that age.
And many of these schoolboys are hoons-in-training. Hoons are my only fly in the ointment in New Zealand.
What's a hoon? For a start, a hoon is called a hoon when in New Zealand. In the UK they're known as chavs, boy-racers, or any number of expletives, as they cut you off at 100 mph on the motorway in their Fiat Bambino that is one legal registration away from the junkyard (and for which they're paying a small mortgage to insure).
In New Zealand, however, hoons get in far more practice at rubber coating the roads because not only can they start driving at the age of 15, but they have access to, and can legally drive, cars such as Skylines, Evos, 3.0-litre Holdens, and any number of souped-up Japanese death traps they can illegally modify.
Uninsured (yep, that's right, no insurance necessary), they can jump into their rice rockets (landing carefully in the driver's seat so as not to jar the spine due to a total lack of suspension) and redline before exiting the school car park. A moment's silence before the k-chssssss k-chsssss, as the dump valve cuts in and the car flies down the road, the bonnet scoop inhaling cats and small children, and the bass causing structural damage in its wake.
And there's no fear of comeuppance because either the windows are too heavily tinted to recognize the offender or the booster seat doesn't quite elevate their eye level above the dashboard.
For NZ politicians, solving the hoon problem is a vote winner. There's talk of mandatory insurance, but if these drivers can continue to avoid tens of thousands of dollars in fines and tickets, what chance is there of squeezing a few hundred a year out of them for something that they could put to better use, like buying 40-gallon drums to modify into mufflers?
I vote for mandatory attitude realignment and more corners. You can drive for miles and miles here and never have to twitch the steering wheel, yet the roadside is peppered with white crosses adorned with flowers and teddy bears. If we were to do as the French do and put life-size silhouettes of those killed on the roadside, we'd probably double the population of New Zealand.