Keep your mind on your driving, no matter what

This anti-distraction hoarding has proved to be a distraction. Photo by Jim Sullivan.
This anti-distraction hoarding has proved to be a distraction. Photo by Jim Sullivan.
There's always something to pester the motorist about and the many bureaucracies which govern the highways do their bit by plastering hoardings along the main roads. Slow down! Take a Break! Watch for Ice! There's even an offer of a free coffee if you stop at the next wayside cafe. None offering a free Speight's at the next pub, but that would perhaps be sending quite the wrong message.

The hoardings are put up with the very best of intentions and no doubt keep us safer and at the very least provide a little reading matter on boring stretches like the straight flat bits on the Canterbury Plains.

A recent campaign aims to get motorists to concentrate on the job of driving and to avoid the myriad distractions which can interfere with safe motoring.

Back-seat drivers and fractious children should be left at home but the boffins can't say that, so they have steered clear of fomenting family feuds in their advertising.

Instead, the ''anti-distraction'' hoardings have pictures of drivers steering with one hand while the other holds a hamburger about the size of a small house (a health risk, even if you do not crash), cellphones (apparently a source of brain damage, even if you do not crash) and other paraphernalia, like GPS systems which will take you directly to the edge of a steep canyon on the Skippers road when you had quite carefully keyed in the Southern Cross Hotel, Dunedin. I think there's even a hoarding with what looks like a 45-inch television screen in the front seat, but maybe that is just the latest mobile phone.

However, I am such a timid driver there is nothing I can think of which would take my eyes off the road ahead, except perhaps for the sight of elephants making love on the North Ground or a group of naked women performing a haka in front of Toitu but such a display is not listed among the museum's attractions. Not yet, anyway.

But in the absence of amorous elephants and an unclad kamate chorus I have discovered another distraction I can plead guilty to. That is trying to read a road map while driving. Most of us have done it and many of us have perhaps had some near misses as a result.

The road safety people are on the case, though, and their ''anti-distraction'' campaign includes a hoarding showing a driver so engrossed in her road map she is about to leave the road altogether.

If you have not seen the hoarding, there is one on Highway 87 near Lee Stream (see today's photograph). I have noticed it a couple of times recently and assumed the road map they are showing will be the area around the Bombay Hills or perhaps the roads around Kaikohe. Such is usually the way of national media types. A real-estate ad for a nationwide firm will inevitably show shots of Auckland suburbs with Rangitoto in the background or a group of smiling bank tellers ready to serve you at your ''local'' branch will quite probably be the staff of the Ponsonby branch and so reflect the cultural diversity of that place. They certainly will not look like a group of Dunedin bankers. Just like the national firm who a few years ago wanted to promote provincial rugby by taking out a large advertisement in this newspaper.

''Join the crowd at Carisbrook!'' ran the slogan underneath an illustration of a rugby-watching crowd, about half of whom where Maori, and almost all of whom were wearing scarves and beanies with Waikato colours. To the advertising whizz-kids in Auckland a rugby crowd is simply a rugby crowd. At least the frenzied spectators were not wearing Manchester United colours!But the road safety advertising people are made of better stuff as I discovered on my last trip from Middlemarch to Dunedin.

As I approached the road map hoarding I decided to slow down and have a closer look at what I was sure would be the Bombay Hills map. But, wonder of wonders! The picture was a map of the very road on which I was travelling! In all its glory Highway 87 stretched before me from Outram to Kyeburn and all the places in between and on either side. It not only confirmed I was on the right road for Dunedin but also restored my faith in the advertising industry. Wouldn't it be great if they use that Otago map on the Bombay Hills hoarding?By now my car was almost at a standstill and it was only quick thinking by the four motorists behind me which avoided an ugly nose-to-tail pile up.

As their brakes screeched and their profanities filled the once-calm country air I realised that if these anti-distraction hoardings are to be any use at all then perhaps they shouldn't be so damn distracting!

- Jim Sullivan is a Dunedin writer and broadcaster.