Family seek solace in new cause

By Doug Laing

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The family of crash victim Rhys Middleton have found just about the only way they can to try to overcome their grief - by trying to make sure such a tragedy doesn't happen again.

Speaking after Jieling Xiao was jailed yesterday for dangerous driving causing Mr Middleton's death on February 7 this year, bereaved mother Judy Richards said: "Rhys' death doesn't need to be in vain. It's got to be a cause. It has to be, it's what keeps us going."

After a string of tragedies involving foreign-driver culpability on New Zealand roads, the Tauranga family is calling for new arrivals in New Zealand to have to pass restricted driver testing before being allowed to hit the road in this country, and then be allowed to drive only while displaying a "V" plate as a visiting driver.

In a letter read to the court, Xiao agreed and, accepting full responsibility for the crash, said that if such controls had been in place the tragedy in which she drove her newly-purchased Toyota Rav 4 into a motorbike ridden by Mr Middleton on State Highway 5 at Eskdale would never have happened.

Judge Bridget Mackintosh described Xiao's driving as "grossly incompetent".

Afterwards, father Michael Middleton described the sentencing as "fantastic" and said although nothing could make up for the loss of his son, the judge had pointed out that if home detention had been granted Xiao could have been deported almost "right away". He said the jail sentence was "setting a benchmark for New Zealand that this should not happen any more. It's time for change".

"This shouldn't have happened. This is a very, very rare accident. Actually, I won't call it an accident. It was an incident." He noted the increasingly high rates at which newly-arrived visitors are found to be culpable for crashes, and says while it seems Chinese people were most frequently involved, the guilty drivers are those who have come from driving on wide-open "eight-lane" highways in their own countries, with little to no experience of New Zealand driving conditions.

Having started a petition (vplates.co.nz), the family say: "It is time that we stood up for ourselves and try to make a difference. We need to save New Zealanders' lives."

They say they want the Government to stop putting the issue in "the too-hard basket" and added: "Reality is that Kiwis are dying at the hands of overseas drivers, and what we are about is to put forward ideas which could help with this issue."

The extent of the problem was highlighted by Crown prosecutor Steve Manning during the sentencing. Using three similar cases for reference, he said he had researched other cases of involving recently-arrived foreign tourists.

"There are many," he said. "It was a tragedy for all concerned. Tragically it was avoidable."

In a Victim Impact Statement read to the court on his behalf, Michael Middleton described the impact by saying how he could not face going into the new workshop he'd had built before the crash, and which was to have been so much the future of his life with his son. In it is the wreckage of the $6000 bike his son was riding and there's also his riding gear, to be burnt when the time comes.

"Forgiveness is not an option," he told Xiao, who sat tearfully in the dock beside an interpreter. Later, after being asked how he felt towards Xiao, he would say: "I feel sorry, but what went down today had to happen. There is remorse there, I just can't accept that remorse yet."

Bereaved mother Judy Richards looked directly at Xiao as she told how her "zest for life has gone" after the death of her son.

"The pain of losing a child is so bad it is almost too bad to bear," she said, telling of how she no longer socialises outside the family, and hasn't had a proper night's sleep since February 7, and has difficulty remembering some things, which she puts down to the trauma.

Son Ryan, who had been riding just ahead of Rhys, told of how he will never forget the crash scene he encountered as he realised what had happened and turned back to try to help save his brother's life. He remembered seeing Xiao at the scene, and told her in court he believed that even if the crash hadn't happened, nothing would have stopped her trying to complete the 219km drive to Rotorua.

Laura Settle, who would have married Rhys Middleton next February, said her life feels "empty and incomplete" and she had to start again without Rhys, who she said had "paid with his life in what was a totally avoidable situation".

According to the Overseas drivers crashes 2015 report, there were 16 fatal crashes in 2014 involving overseas drivers in New Zealand, resulting in 22 deaths. All but one of those crashes was caused by the driver from overseas. Of the 100 serious-injury crashes involving visitors, 78 were caused by the overseas driver and of the 436 minor-injury crashes involving visitor driving, 322 were the fault of the visitor.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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