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Police are urging rural communities to take responsibility for young people's safety after a 13-year-old girl died after falling from a car driven by her 16-year-old cousin.

April Te Uira Taylor Hiko-Reha was one of three young people sitting on the car's boot as her female cousin drove it along a road in the Bay of Plenty community of Waimana on Sunday.

Five other youngsters were in the mid-1990s model Mazda 323.

The group, who police said were aged between 10 and 16, were returning from a swimming hole on the Whakatane River when the accident happened about 6pm.

April suffered head injuries when she fell on to the road and ambulance staff were unable to revive her.

Police are investigating, but have not yet decided whether to charge the driver and are refusing to say if she had a licence.

"We haven't made any decisions about culpability so I think it's unfair, especially on her and her family, to discuss her [driving] status in the media," said Senior Sergeant Bruce Jenkins.

He said the distance from the swimming hole to the car's destination was about half a kilometre, and speed did not appear to be a factor.

"The major contributing factor here would be the unsafe manner in which they were riding on the vehicle."

The trio were sitting and facing backwards, April on one side.

"She's somehow either lost her grip or balance and has fallen off the side."

The car has been seized for the investigation but the officer heading the team was off work yesterday and Mr Jenkins did not know if the vehicle was registered or had a warrant.

Waimana, meanwhile, is mourning the loss of the popular teenager.

"The whole community is hurting over it," Waimana School principal Helen Te Wara said.

She said April, the third of four sisters from a well-known family, was "just a super girl and quite a leader in the community".

"She was an excellent student, going places and very good right across the curriculum," Ms Te Wara said.

April attended Waimana School until the end of 2005 and belonged to the school's kapa haka group.

She had just begun her second year at Whakatane High School, where she was also part of the kapa haka group and one of the few juniors to compete in national competitions.

Teacher Hiria Wallace said she was "an outgoing young lady" who was always laughing and joking, and was caring towards her friends.

April's distraught family called her "a beautiful girl".

"She'll be a great loss to us," said an aunt, who did not want to be named.

April's cousin, also a student at Whakatane High, was said to be "blaming herself" for what had happened.

Mr Jenkins said April's death was tragic and unnecessary, and urged rural communities such as Waimana to take responsibility for young people's safety, saying it was impossible to have "a policeman on every corner".

"We're asking people to step up and take some sort of leadership roles to prevent similar incidents happening in the future."

Ms Te Wara was "fiercely disappointed" that the incident had happened in Waimana, where she said there was a strong focus on road safety at the school.

She could not believe an intelligent girl such as April had sat on the moving car but attributed it to summer, when "kids do some sillythings".

None of the others involved were Waimana students, she said.

April's body is lying in state at the community's Tauanui Marae.

Sixty students from Whakatane High plan to pay their respects to the teenager today.