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New Zealanders Are Stealing the Car Keys of Tourists Who Drive Badly

The upswing in vigilante justice may be latent nationalism bubbling to the surface.

Photo via Flickr user walknboston

This week, a man from Dunedin, New Zealand, forcibly removed the car keys from a Chinese tourist. The altercation began when the tourist couple stopped on a narrow stretch of mountain highway to take photos of the Otago Peninsula. This backed up the traffic behind them, and the couple continued to drive slowly along the highway and eventually pulled into a private driveway. That's when the aforementioned vigilante, Robert Penman, got out of his car and took their keys.


"I told him you're not going anywhere mate, and he said 'out of the way', but I told him I've called the police and they can come sort it out," he told

It's just the latest in a string of testy interactions between tourists and locals. In January, an Australian family was left stranded on an isolated part of the South Island when a Queenstown motorist witnessed a near accident and took their keys. In February a European driver was punched in the face after a minor car accident in Greymouth. Then, on Sunday, a Christchurch man filmed a foreign driver repeatedly drifting into an oncoming lane. When the tourist finally stopped at a petrol station, the local seized the keys and told the driver he could collect them from the police station. The driver was later issued an infringement notice for failing to keep left.

This all begs the question, how has this become a thing? In an effort to find out, VICE spoke to a driver from Wanaka, Ben Wilkinson, who witnessed a local vigilante remove a driver's keys and throw them into a roadside bush. According to him the whole trend may just be latent nationalism bubbling to the surface.

"We've had problems with tourists on the roads for years and I think the first confrontation has encouraged others to do the same," he said. "Heaps of New Zealanders have a bit of a thing about Asian drivers, so that might have started it too."

Numbers from 2013 cited in local media reports show overseas drivers have been responsible for 11 fatal crashes, 90 accidents that caused serious injury, and over 400 accidents causing minor injuries.

While acting Road Policing Manager Senior Sergeant Steve Larking agrees that while foreign drivers do cause more accidents in tourist hot spots, he doesn't want to overstate the problem. "It is important to not forget that the vast majority of crashes are still caused by New Zealand drivers," he tells VICE.

This week, in response to both an increase of poor driving and vigilantism, the Associate Transport Minister Craig Foss announced that the South Island would be installing an additional 50 kilometers (31 miles) of rumble strips throughout Otago and Southland, as well as an additional 140 solid yellow lines as well as some 200 kilometers (124 miles) of road to be marked with "keep left" arrows. And although the initiatives are targeted at keeping tourists safe, Cross assured the media that "vigilante enforcement is not the way to go."

This came two days after Prime Minister John Key issued a public statement warning people against key snatching. "People taking the law into their own hands is not sensible," he declared. "The very sensible thing to do is ring 111 and advise the police where you are because you just never know what could happen next. Some terrible incident could occur as a result of it."

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