Driver laws stay despite death

By Juliet Rowan

2 comments
VICTIM: Motorcyclist Rhys Middleton died as a result of a Chinese driver's inexperience. PHOTO/SUPPLIED
VICTIM: Motorcyclist Rhys Middleton died as a result of a Chinese driver's inexperience. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

No changes will be made to driver licensing laws in the wake of the death of motorcyclist Rhys Middleton at the hands of a foreign driver.

The 23-year-old died after being struck by Chinese national Jieling Xiao, 27, in a horror crash during Waitangi Weekend near Napier.

Transport Minister Simon Bridges said while he feels deep sympathy for the Middleton family, the statistics did not warrant a law change.

He says foreign drivers comprise only a small number of deaths and serious injuries on the nation's roads, and he does not want to jeopardise New Zealanders' ability to drive overseas.

"I wouldn't want to lightly impose on people coming here something we wouldn't want to see imposed in their countries."

Mr Bridges said the Government is working to provide education and information to visitors on planes and through rental car companies, and also trialling new audio messaging technology in rental cars.

The messages remind drivers to keep left, drive to road, weather and traffic conditions, and take breaks.

Tukituki MP and Associate Transport Minister Craig Foss backed Mr Bridges and said the number of overseas drivers involved in crashes "has stayed relatively consistent at a time when international visitor numbers have increased by about 30 per cent".

In stark contrast to those views, New Zealand First MP Clayton Mitchell firmly supported licence testing of visitors. "If they're going to stay here for a period longer than three months, then let's ensure they have got the right qualifications, they do understand our road code, and they can actually drive safely on our roads," Mr Mitchell said.

He said the ratio of cars to people in China was about one car per 20 people, compared with about 1.5 cars per person here.

"Driving's not a way of life over there."

Xiao pleaded guilty to a charge of dangerous driving causing death and in June was sentenced, at the Napier District Court, to 17 months in prison.

On appeal she was granted a reduction in the sentence and was given the lesser sentence of nine months' home detention and 150 hours' community work. She was deported last week.

Mr Mitchell said Xiao "couldn't drive herself around a carpark with cones in it, and yet we've allowed her to drive on our roads".

With the number of tourists growing, Mitchell says New Zealand cannot afford to be complacent and he rejects Mr Bridges' assertion that the statistics do not support change, saying no study has been done of how many tourists actually drive when they come to New Zealand.

The Automobile Association says it is awaiting a response from the Ministry of Transport to explain why the current policy is to allow tourist drivers to drive for a year.

Bev Driscoll, the ministry's acting manager land transport safety, says New Zealand is subject to the United Nations Convention on Road Traffic, which allows New Zealanders travelling overseas to drive on their NZ driver's licence for up to 12 months and allows visitors driving here to do the same.

She says the Transport and Industrial Relations Select Committee recently considered the issue of compulsory testing but concluded there were more effective ways of improving road safety.

A range of organisations including central and local government, the tourism and rental vehicle sectors, and others were working on a Visiting Drivers Project to improve road safety.

The Government had invested $25 million in the project and also allocated $600m for safety improvements to more than 90 high-risk sites on rural state highways.

"The number of overseas drivers involved in crashes has stayed relatively consistent at a time when international visitor numbers have increased by about 30 per cent," Ms Driscoll said.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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