Phil Taylor is a Weekend Herald and New Zealand Herald senior staff writer.

The Great Tourism Squeeze: Foreign drivers hit the road

At first you couldn't tell what it was across the road. Beyond the queue of cars and flashing lights, a large white object blocked the tourist highway between Akaroa and Christchurch.

We got closer. The object was the sheath of what until a short time ago was a caravan. Torn apart, its contents were strewn about like confetti. Then we saw the cars, the front of both smashed in.

A middle-aged couple from the car that towed the caravan sat in shock 10 metres away, blankets around their shoulders. Those in the other vehicle, a dark-coloured people-mover, were on the way to hospital, the driver with grave injuries.

"Five Chinese people on the wrong side of the road," a police officer told us at the scene.

They were coming from Akaroa and, he said, people in a following car had reported that the vehicle was drifting across the centre-line regularly, as though the driver was falling asleep.

"You want to hear the [police] radio traffic from Twizel and Taupo and Fairlie about [reports of] tourists on the wrong side of the road. It's not just from Asia, it's Germans ..."

All police could do, he said, was caution the driver unless the rental company gave permission for police to take the keys.

There have periodically been calls for tourists to have to sit a test before taking charge of a rental vehicle but these are considered impractical.

Tauranga woman Judy Richards, whose son Rhys Middleton was killed by a foreign driver delivered a petition with 9000 signatures to Parliament in February calling for tourist drivers who stay in the country for more than three months to sit a driving test.

"[I got] a phone call that no mum wants to hear," she told Newshub, "Rhys is dead ... foreign driver... your stomach, your life just drains. Unless you've walked in these shoes you'll never understand".

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Jieling Xiao, here on a 12-month working visa, was sentenced to 17 months' jail. She appealed and was deported having spent two months behind bars. She had not driven on the open road before.

Richards said the Chinese woman veered off the road, over-corrected and crashed into her son's motorbike. "She was out of her depth."

Previous petitions calling for testing of drivers when they enter the country have failed.

Tourism Industry Aotearoa chief executive Chris Roberts says the number of foreign drivers involved in fatal and serious crashes in New Zealand remained constant despite one million more tourists now arriving annually.

"NZTA tell us that there's no evidence at all that they crash at a higher rate than local drivers - they crash for the same reason that New Zealanders do and that is inattention.

Several people were injured in this crash near Little River. New Zealand Herald photograph by Mike Scott
Several people were injured in this crash near Little River. New Zealand Herald photograph by Mike Scott

Most wrecks from the tourist route south of Christchurch towards Mackenzie Country end up at Stewart's Panel and Paint in Geraldine. In peak season a car was being pulled off Highway 79 every few days.

"It's quietened down lately but with the tourists it's mainly Chinese, running off into ditches," said manager Brook Barnett. "I'd say 98 per cent Chinese. We pulled a Mercedes in the other day from the Rangitata. Chinese driver. It had gone over the train tracks, across the highway and into a restaurant."

The Herald saw the aftermath of two accidents during a six-day South Island trip, the caravan versus people mover and a four-wheel drive vehicle that had run off the road near Milford Sound. The occupants of that vehicle were locals, we were told.

The fire brigade attends serious crashes. Tekapo fire brigade attends 50 or 60 accidents a year. Call outs weren't rising as fast as tourist numbers, said the town's chief fire officer Craig Willis.

"I wouldn't say it's out of proportion. People don't tend to single out crashes where the locals are at fault."

On the other side of Burke's Pass, Fairlie's deputy chief fire officer Ray Gardner, a veteran of 46 years in the brigade, has seen a steady rise in traffic and tourism volumes which he said was reflected in a growing number of accidents.

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About 40 to 50 per cent now involved tourists.

"There are some problem ones but there's equally as many Kiwis who are problem drivers."

"People going to sleep, running off the road," was the most common cause. "I can only think of a couple of accidents from being on the wrong side of the road and one of them was a Kiwi."

Road safety is one of the concerns about booming tourism in Akaroa. In February a bus loaded with tourists went down a steep bank on the winding and hilly road after a head-on collision with a car.

Akaroa fire chief Mark Thompson told the Herald the Hilltop accident was the only one involving a bus on that highway. "Yes there are frustrations about being held up, but that's part of it [booming tourism]."

Tourism Minister Paula Bennett said the targeted safety programme begun a year ago was working.

"The percentage of accidents has not gone up but the number of visitors has gone up. That is [the result of] more education, the push marketing that goes on via social media and better education when renting vehicles.''

"It is working but we are not by any means complacent.''

Tourism targeted safety programme

• $25 million Visiting Drivers Project announced December 2015.

• $1 million for social marketing programme providing information to visitors

• Bulk of money to be spent on engineering improvements to tourist routes in Otago, Southland and the West Coast.

• Improvements include more edge-line rumble strips, rest area signage, "keep left" lane arrows, no-passing lines, barriers and shoulder widening.

- NZ Herald

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