Speed factor in crash: Coroner

By Peter de Graaf

A Far North man who died in a crash on Ninety Mile Beach was probably driving too fast for the conditions when his ute hit a patch of water, aquaplaned and rolled.

In a report released yesterday, Northland coroner Brandt Shortland also found that Thomas Walker, who was 27 at the time of the crash on May 1, 2009, and his two companions were not wearing seatbelts. As a result Mr Walker was thrown from the vehicle, suffering severe head and chest injuries.

Despite being a recognised road with a speed limit of 100km/h, Mr Shortland said Ninety Mile Beach was "inherently dangerous" with ever-changing conditions based on tide, weather and sand.

Mr Shortland said he would be speculating if he said seatbelts would have made a difference, but they had the potential to save lives.

Tests found traces of THC in Mr Walker's blood at a level equivalent to a smoking a single cannabis cigarette fours hours earlier. However, Mr Shortland said speed and beach conditions appeared to be the main factors behind the crash.

It was a "most unfortunate tragedy" on a popular beach serving as a road between Kaitaia and Cape Reinga.

It was fortuitous that Mr Walker's workmates and cousins, Richard and Isaac Leef, were alive today - although Isaac Leef was still nursing serious injuries and would take a long time to recover fully.

Mr Shortland said the men had been driving to the Cape, where they were working on a roading project with United Civil Construction, and planned some fishing on the way. Traffic was light and the sand firmer than usual due to rain.

It was usually Isaac Leef's responsibility to drive the work ute, but he had recently lost his licence so Mr Walker took the wheel.

They were 7km north of Hukatere and travelling about 80km/h when the ute hit a patch of water and began to hydroplane. Richard Leef said it was "like going on ice".

The ute rotated, dug into the sand, flipped into the air and rolled. Mr Walker and Isaac Leef were thrown out of the vehicle. Richard Leef climbed out of the upside-down ute and found Mr Walker was struggling to breathe. Isaac could still talk, saying he had a sore neck.

He made both comfortable and placed Mr Walker in the recovery position before running 2.5km to raise the alarm because there was no cellphone coverage.

When Richard Leef got back to the crash scene he found Mr Walker was dead.

Isaac Leef was airlifted to Whangarei Hospital by the Northland Electricity Rescue Helicopter.

- Northern Advocate

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