Driver cleared over submerged bus on Ninety Mile Beach

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GOING NOWHERE: The submerged bus on Ninety Mile Beach.PHOTO/FILE
GOING NOWHERE: The submerged bus on Ninety Mile Beach.PHOTO/FILE

The driver of a small tour bus that was inundated by the tide on Ninety Mile Beach last year has been cleared of fault.

A charge of careless driving against Clarke Mollison Robson was dismissed in the Kaitaia District Court last week, after a defended hearing.

The court heard Robson was a professional driver, currently working for local firm Sand Safaris, who had been taking tourists to Cape Reinga almost daily for more than 20 years.

On October 22 last year, he had nine passengers as he made the return journey to Kaitaia via Ninety Mile Beach.

According to police, he told his passengers that getting down the beach "might be touch and go".

On reaching the Bluff, it became apparent that the tide was"significantly high," with rough surf around an outcrop of rocks that had to be passed on the seaward side.

Robson parked for some time, as did the drivers of two bigger buses, to wait for the water to recede. The bigger buses subsequently drove through the surf successfully and Robson proceeded to follow, but pulled away and waited again, trying to judge the wave pattern.

He tried again a short time later, but water flooded the engine and the bus stalled. Robson was unable to start it again, waves hitting the vehicle, which lost traction, until it was floating and pointing out to sea. As the waves hit the bus, it lurched on to its side before righting itself.

Robson allegedly told his passengers "This isn't good," and instructed them to get off the bus. They helped each other through the surf to the safety of the rocks, one passenger tearing a leg muscle when she fell.

Robson told police that the incident had occurred several hours after high tide, and that it should have been safe to drive around the rocks.

He told the court that there was nothing unusual about the conditions.

His practice was to wait and watch, and time his run past the rocks. He had driven through water 30cm deep many times, as had many other drivers. It was a normal thing to do.

This time, however, as he began to "crawl" around the rocks, slightly closer to them than the buses that had preceded him, his front left wheel dropped into a hole. The bus stalled and would not restart. At that stage the water was no more than 30cm deep, but a sweep from further along the beach surged towards the vehicle and hit it.

At that point Robson knew he would need a tow to get the bus out of the hole but another bus driver declined to help, given the risk it would represent to his vehicle.

Robson said he had been embarrassed, and sorry to hear that one of his passengers had hurt her leg, but he had thought carefully before trying to get around the rocks and given his experience, had not expected any problem.

He also told the court that water had not got into the engine. Another tour bus driver, Matt Barnett, told the court that the incident had simply been bad luck.

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