The grief of the families and friends of the two women who were fatally injured in a crash on Houhora Heads Rd on May 15 is still raw.
That was made clear when two sisters of Marion Andrew and the son of Pauline Ogilvy read their victim impact statements in the Kaitaia District Court, as 28-year-old Dante Felipe Basaez Vera awaited sentence.
But while Judge Deidre Orchard was left in no doubt of the devastation the crash had caused, she was not asked to deliver retribution. Russell Ogilvy, who told Judge Orchard that a New Zealand prison was not the place for Vera, said his mother would have shown compassion, while one of Mrs Andrew's sisters said she wanted Vera to be able to return to his family.
'The internet these days is routinely used by dashcam owners to publish video of some truly appalling driving, much of which is probably committed by those who know very well that they should keep to the left.'
These were generous in the extreme. No one could have criticised the families for appealing to the court for the harshest possible sentence, if not as punishment for the Chilean who had just begun a working holiday in New Zealand when he drove on the wrong side of the road, then as a deterrent to others.
Instead they focused on how foreign drivers might be reminded that in New Zealand traffic keeps to the left. That is an issue that is slowly gaining traction, although it is difficult to see how such accidents might be prevented in their entirety.
Judge Orchard also showed compassion when she sentenced Vera. This man had not woken up that day intending to drive in the wrong lane, to kill two women and grievously injure a third. It was an accident. An accident with appalling consequences, but entirely unintentional (as reflected in the charges of aggravated careless driving, rather than dangerous).
The court heard that there was no suggestion that Vera had been speeding. He and the other driver had both attempted to avoid the collision, but tragically both veered in the same direction. It heard of his remorse — an emotion that is more often professed in a court dock than actually displayed — and of his wish for the opportunity for atonement, impossible as that was.
Considered dispassionately, the sentence — four months' home detention (to be served in Auckland) followed by six months' post-detention conditions, 18 months' disqualification from driving and reparation of $1000 for each of the three families — was reasonable, although that view is not universally shared.
Some compared the sentence, not entirely accurately, with what a small-scale cannabis grower might receive. Others bemoaned the perceived failure of courts in general to impose appropriate punishment on those who take innocent lives. One Facebook poster reckoned a friend had been jailed for nine months for driving without a licence. A slight exaggeration, perhaps.
If those who do not believe that the court did its job in not jailing Vera want to see him suffer, Judge Orchard clearly expects them to get their wish. Describing him as a good and decent man, she expressed the hope that he would be able to put the crash and its aftermath behind him and move on, but she doubted that he would ever forget it.
He had done what he could for the victims at the scene, and was clearly devastated by the consequences of the accident, she said. He was at the time, and remained, wracked with guilt and filled with remorse. The police were not seeking imprisonment, and because of his nature Vera was punishing himself more harshly than the court could.
The reaction in some quarters to Judge Orchard's thoughtful and compassionate summation was not unexpected, and is even understandable, if for no other reason that this was far from the first fatal crash involving a foreign driver who had forgotten, even if only momentarily, that traffic in this country travels on the left. However, it was far from the most egregious display of faulty driving that emergency services have ever seen, or are likely to see in the future.
The internet these days is routinely used by dashcam owners to publish video of some truly appalling driving, much of which is probably committed by those who know very well that they should keep to the left. Most, fortunately, do not result in injury or death, but that often seems to be the result of good luck, or the reactions of others, more than good management.
If the courts are to throw the book at those who threaten, or take, the lives of innocent people, their prime target should be those who know better, and choose to drive in a clearly dangerous fashion.
Their wrath should be reserved for those who knowingly flout well-understood laws.
Those who drive while impaired by alcohol or drugs, those who pay no attention to speed limits, who cannot read signs requiring them to stop or give way, and those who flee the police, often, it seems, in the hope of avoiding punishment for a relatively minor infringement, and kill other people.
Dante Vera was none of these people. He was a young man who made a mistake, for which he and three Far North families have paid, and will continue to pay, a horrible price. Punishing him to anything approaching the maximum allowed by the law would not have changed that. Nor would it have encouraged others who come to this country and drive on our roads to remember the need to keep left.
Harsher punishment than he received would have served no purpose other than extracting vengeance.
And while those who are grieving the loss of two much-loved women on May 15 might never heal, the crash at least prompted the painting of arrows on Houhora Heads Rd, which might save lives in the future.
Perhaps it should not have taken this crash to persuade authorities that arrows were needed. If arrows have the potential to save lives, and every reminder of the need to keep left, whatever form it takes, surely has that potential, then roads leading away from places were foreign drivers are likely to visit, like Houhora Heads, would have to be prime candidates.
If there is to be criticism perhaps it belongs to a Transport Ministry that has repeatedly argued that fatal crashes involving foreign drivers on the wrong side of the road are a very, very small minority, even if it's right.
Those who die on the roads in this country because of someone's failure to obey the road rules, or to display a reasonable standard of care, are much more likely to be victims of fellow New Zealanders than a tourist, although that, obviously, is of no comfort whatsoever to those who lose loved ones in circumstances such as this.
One Facebook post in response to Vera's sentencing simply stated: 'It was just a mistake'. And it was. A mistake with appalling consequences, one that no individual, or court, can ever put right. A tragedy in every sense of the word, and a reminder to us all to guard against even momentary carelessness. Many years ago a judge told a defendant in the Kaitaia District Court that "every time you say 'Whoops,' that's careless driving." Who would disagree with that?
Sometimes though, there is an awful price to pay.
"I hope that every single day when you wake up you will appreciate how precious life is, how quickly it can be taken away, and how lucky you are to be alive and healthy," Russell Ogilvy told Dante Felipe Basaez Vera — words that every one of us should take to heart.