Holiday road toll (4pm December 24th - 6am January 5th)

A man is dead after accelerating through a police checkpoint and crashing into a ditch in the Bay of Plenty last night.

The death and another fatal crash in the region less than an hour earlier took the holiday road toll to five, of a 2009 total of 384.

Police said it appeared the driver approached the checkpoint on the east side of Otara bridge, on State Highway 35, just east of Opotiki, at speed and did not stop when signalled.

He accelerated and lost control of the car 200 metres further on, rolling into a ditch on the opposite side of the road, about 6.45pm.

About 45 minutes earlier, an eastbound car crossed the centre line and collided with another car on State Highway 2, Matata, 23km northwest of Whakatane, about 6pm, police said.

One passenger in the eastbound car died and the driver and two other passengers were taken to hospital.

The people in the other car were believed to have suffered minor injuries, police said.

The BayTrust Rescue Helicopter attended the crash and flew a 53-year-old man to Tauranga hospital with chest injuries.

Spokesman Neil Dodds said the people in the car which apparently crossed the centre line were tourists.

Earlier in the day, a truck-and-trailer unit rolled on hitting a bank on State Highway 1 north of Tirau.

Last night, the driver was in a critical condition in Waikato Hospital.

The toll for the summer holiday period, which began at 4pm on Christmas Eve and ends at 6am on January 5, stood at five last night compared with 17 at the same time in 2008.

Police are pleased 2009 ended with a road toll under 400 but believe the figure can be lower still.

The provisional road toll for the year was 384, 19 more than last year but still the second lowest since 1960.

National road policing manager Paula Rose said overall it was a good result, given the increase in the number of cars on the road.

"Our challenge going forward is to get that deaths number right, right down so that people don't have to suffer the needless loss and suffering that goes with a road death," she told Radio New Zealand.

In 2008, 365 people died on the roads - one for every day of the year.

Before that, 421 died in 2007, 393 in 2006, 405 in 2005, and 435 in 2004.

AA spokesman Simon Lambourne said although the toll had dropped slightly in recent years, his organisation was concerned at a rise in serious injuries since 2000.

Although technological improvements in cars were helping to reduce the toll, a persistently high injury rate pointed to a need for better roads.

Other obvious areas for improvement included significant changes to the graduated licence system to protect young drivers "grossly over-represented in crashes" and a better understanding of why people crashed.

"Crashes don't just happen when people disobey the road rules," Mr Lambourne said.

"There is good evidence that driver distraction, drowsiness and poor handling are far more common causes of crashes."

He said the fact that the compilation of injury statistics lagged well behind that of road deaths made it all the harder to focus attention on them.

The latest Ministry of Transport data for road injuries are for the 12 months to the end of May, when 14,842 people were reported hurt in crashes.

Although that was down from 15,174 for 2008, it was far higher than 10,962 injuries reported in 2000.

The number of serious road injuries increased from 1769 to 2098.

- ADDITIONAL REPORTING: NZPA