The first crash victim of the year was a "beautiful man with a big heart".

Ben Rhodes, 37, died at about 2am on January 1 in a light van crash near Nelson.

He lost control of the van on a corner on State Highway 60, north of the Motueka River Bridge.

READ MORE: 2016 road toll: Sixteen dead so far


The van rolled several times before coming to rest on a bank on the side of the road.

Mr Rhodes died at the scene. One passenger was flown to Nelson Hospital with spinal injuries. The other passenger also had moderate to serious injuries and was taken to hospital.

Speed appeared to be an aggravating factor leading to the crash, police said. No other vehicles were involved.

'He always put himself last'

Mr Rhodes' partner of seven years, Jasmine Thorburn, said his death had left a huge hole in their family's lives.

"He was a beautiful man with a big heart. He would do everything for everyone.

"We were together 24/7. He was very caring. He always put himself last."

Mr Rhodes was stepfather to Ms Thorburn's five children. He also had two children from a previous relationship and they had a son together.

"He loved all the kids equally. He loved taking them to the beach and he would take them eeling.

"The kids all loved him so much. I think they're being strong for me."

Ms Thorburn was with family on a remote beach near Kennedy Bay in the Coromandel when the crash happened. There was no power or phone reception.

She did not hear until about 4pm on January 1 -- 14 hours after his death -- that he had died.

A storm prevented her from flying back to Nelson until the following day.

"I think in a way it was a good thing I didn't hear for a while because I was trapped. There was nothing I could do. I would have been trapped for even longer."

Ms Thorburn said she had a lot of support since his death.

"He had a few close friends but got along with everyone.

"Everyone wanted to be Ben's friend."

'The funniest laugh you could ever hear'

Mr Rhodes' brother, Brendon Rhodes, told the Herald he regretted not getting a chance to see Ben before he died.

"It has been sad because I hadn't seen my brother in eight years. I've only talked to him on the phone ...

"I'm going to miss everything about him."

Brendon lives in Whitianga on the Coromandel Peninsula, while Ben lived in Motueka, near Nelson.

"We both had our lives," Brendon said. "Last time I rang him was for his birthday in October.

"We had a good chat. We were making plans to catch up too."

"He had a kind heart and the funniest laugh you could ever hear. I'm going to miss Ben so much.

"He will always be in my thoughts and my heart.

"When I think of him, I can always hear his laugh."

'Take extra care'

Fifteen more people have died on the roads since Mr Rhodes death -- an average of more than one a day for 2016.

The high death toll has prompted police to remind drivers to take extra care.

"As the driver of the vehicle you are responsible for making smart decisions that enable those in the car with you, and other road users, to get to their destinations unharmed," national road policing manager Superintendent Steve Greally said.

"This means if you are tired, make the right decision to pull over safely and take a break."

Drivers also needed to remember not all roads were created equal.

"Many of New Zealand's roads are unforgiving and leave no room for mistakes," he said.

"Check your speed, and know that the speed limit is the maximum speed you can travel at safely in ideal conditions.

"The decisions you make as the driver could be the difference between a great summer and one marred with the pain and devastation a fatal crash causes."