Driver in Queenstown fatal crash may have fallen asleep at wheel

The Hertz rental van was travelling to Twizel before the crash. Photo / ODT
The Hertz rental van was travelling to Twizel before the crash. Photo / ODT

The driver of a Hertz 10-seater passenger van that crashed, killing an Indian tourist near Queensberry last month, conceded he might have fallen asleep at the wheel.

In the Queenstown District Court before Judge Bernadette Farnan yesterday, Bhagwan-Lal Gopawat, 46, of Mumbai, admitted one charge of careless driving causing the death of 62-year-old Kusum Kenia and five charges of careless driving causing injury to her husband, Rohit Kenia, 62, Aarti Jain, 23, Jayesh Singhvi, 23, Dinesh Ajmera, 57, and Meena Ajmera, 56, - all the charges laid in the aggravated form - on March 25.

The charges carry a maximum sentence of three years' imprisonment or a $10,000 fine.

Gopawat was remanded on bail and referred to restorative justice before his sentencing in the Rotorua District Court on May 20.

Conditions of his bail included not to drive and Judge Farnan ordered that the possibility of reparation be investigated.

The police summary of facts said Gopawat arrived in New Zealand on January 21, with a work visa until April 21.

He was employed by Mumbai-based Gem Travel, a company that offered guided tours throughout New Zealand.

He had worked for Gem Travel for about 12 years and had worked on about 12 trips for the company "but always as a cook''.

He had held an Indian driving licence for four or five years.

At the time of the crash, both he and the company were operating commercially in New Zealand without a Transport Service Licence or any passenger-approved endorsements on their respective licences.

"The defendant was operating on his Indian driver's licence as a private citizen; this licence allows him to operate a motorcycle with gears or a lightweight vehicle."

The Indian Government driver's licence requires drivers to have a specific endorsement on their driver's licence to operate a transport vehicle.

"The defendant's driver's licence did not have this endorsement,'' the summary said.

On March 15 the victims arrived in Auckland for their 10-day tour of the North and South Island.

After arriving in Queenstown on March 20 the group was split and continued their tour in two Hertz rental passenger vans.

Gopawat was driving a Toyota Hiace, with seating for 10 people, around the Te Anau and Queenstown areas for five days before the crash.

On March 25 the group was heading in the two vans to Twizel.

Gopawat was in the lead vehicle with six members of the tour party.

Mr Kenia was in the left front passenger seat.

In the first row of rear seats were Mr Singhvi and Mr Ajmera.

In the second row of rear seats sat Ms Jain, Mrs Ajmera and Mrs Kenia.

About 12.30pm Gopawat failed to negotiate an "easy left hand bend'' near Poison Creek.

The vehicle crossed the no-passing centrelines into the opposite lane, continued for about 75m and drove off the sealed road, on to the grass-gravel shoulder and continued for 83m.

It left the road and became airborne as it cleared a 10m-wide culvert before impacting head-on into an earth bank on the other side.

"The speed at the time of impact was 94km/h."

No attempts were made by the defendant to slow the vehicle's progress or alter the path of the vehicle.''

Mrs Kenia, who was unrestrained, was thrown forward and hit the row of seats in front of her.

Her husband suffered bruising and minor scratches.

The remaining passengers suffered a mixture of broken bones and other injuries.

Gopawat had a fractured sternum and a flexion distraction injury to his lower spine.

When spoken to by police after he was released from hospital, the defendant admitted he normally rode a motorcycle with gears and "occasionally'' drove a light car, but was told by his booking manager that he would be driving the van.

"As he was driving to Wanaka his eyes became watery and he may have blacked out. He concedes that he may have fallen asleep.''

- Otago Daily Times

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