A senior firefighter believes one simple action immediately after a serious car crash could halve the country's road toll.

Jim McLean, who's been with the Fire Service - now Fire and Emergency New Zealand - since 1972, says half of all people who died in car accidents die because as they are unconscious their tongue blocks the airway.

"And the simple action of lifting their head and tilting it back to open the airway would, I understand, save 50 per cent of everyone who dies in a road accident at the moment," he says.

By the end of April this year, 133 people had died on New Zealand roads, up from 124 at the same time last year.


For Road Safety Week this week, the Herald has spoken to five emergency services staff, who collectively have more than 120 years' experience in their fields and have attended at least 600 fatal crashes.

McLean, who has been in charge of the Silverdale Pump Rescue Tender for more than four decades, says he's attended numerous serious car crashes in that time.

At a guess, he says he's been called to about 100 fatal crashes.

"I can still remember the very first time I went to a serious accident where there was a baby in a baby seat and it was in the time when they were not common," he says.

"I remember looking at the beautiful little plastic seat and how elegantly [it] had protected the baby in the middle of all that carnage."

More recently, McLean can recall a disappointing fatal crash he reponded to while at Henderson station.

"A young lady driving at high speed had crashed head-on into a truck on the wrong side of the road. And I had heard the crash at the station and thought it was only a couple of hundred metres away but it was actually 2km away.

"And she was killed instantly. And she was very seriously trapped and police wanted us to remove the body and we did that because of the public area it was."


He says some of the most personally traumatic incidents that he's been called to however, were either fires or industrial accidents.

"For the most part, I think for motor vehicle incidents our equipment means we are able to do something in almost every circumstance."

He points to the advances in vehicle design over the years which should mean fewer people die in an accident.

"Now tilt steering wheels are there, not for the convenience of drivers but because when you push hard on the front of that in an accident the steering column folds up nicely and steers the wheel away from the passenger."

McLean says he travels to Europe now and again, where he has friends who work in the fire service in Germany, France and Switzerland.

"In Germany, I stay on stations and go to calls with them, which I find particularly interesting given the speeds on the autobahn," he says.

He says that gives him the perspective to say that generally speaking, New Zealand is doing well.


• 134 people had died as of May 4, 2018, compared to 127 at the same time last year

• 40 females have died compared to 29 at the same time last year, while 94 males have died compared to 98 at the same time last year

• 118 fatal crashes have taken place, compared to 116 at the same time last year

• There are more over 60 year olds who have died than any other age group, with 38 fatalities so far. There were 18 deaths among those aged 20-24 and 30 deaths among those aged 25-39

• March is the worst month so far this year with 41 deaths. January is the next worst with 36 deaths.