Drive north of Warkworth this summer, past Sheepworld and up a narrow, windy hill and you're in Dome Valley, known as the "Killing Fields".

Every region has its black spots with skids marks, dotted with white crosses.

For motorists travelling on the major highway connecting Auckland to Northland, Dome Valley on SH1 with its steep hillsides has an eerie feeling of danger. Since 2000, it has claimed 36 lives and left 102 people with serious injuries.

Our most fatal morning: See the interactive here


"My family live in Whangārei and I travel this road a lot. I have come across terrible accidents here. It was given a name years ago as the Killing Fields because that is what it was," says Inspector Scott Webb, road policing manager for Tāmaki Makaurau.

The police officer says a number of factors make Dome Valley dangerous, including motorists coming from an open highway where they can probably relax a little to a narrow road where they have to concentrate. Other factors are inattention, failing to keep left and high speed.

He said engineering improvements have reduced the number of fatal crashes, but there are still a significant number of serious-injury crashes.

A vehicle involved in a fatal accident is removed form Dome Valley.
A vehicle involved in a fatal accident is removed form Dome Valley.

Joanna Harris' body was broken in a horrific crash and her unborn baby died when a van shot out, overtaking cars in front of it, and headed straight into her vehicle just past the Dome cafe in November 2016.

She remembers wondering whether to speed up or brake but realised she could not avoid the crash.

"I remember watching my hand ... fly across off the steering wheel and literally snap off my wrist in front of my face."

She was trapped in the vehicle when paramedics and fire crews arrived and bleeding profusely from internal injuries.

The Wellsford woman would probably have bled to death had an emergency trauma doctor, Marcus Chan, not been aboard the Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopter to provide a mid-air blood transfusion. Two years later, Harris is still having surgery.


Bill Calthrop is manager of the Top of the Dome Cafe set high in the bush overlooking the highway at the Warkworth end. He peers down at the windy hill, saying it is one of the most dangerous corners in New Zealand.

It is not the road or speed that is the problem, but drivers and drivers' attitudes, he said.

Earlier this month, Transport Minister Phil Twyford, Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter and bigwigs from the New Zealand Transport Agency held a media conference in the car park below Calthrop's cafe to announce a $1.4 billion "Safe Network Programme" to make dangerous stretches of highway safer.

Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter.
Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter.

Starting this summer, the programme will fund $35 million to make safety improvments at Dome Valley. Flexible median and side barriers will be installed to prevent head-on crashes and avoid hitting something hard like a pole, tree or ditch. The road shoulder will be widened and intersections improved.

Brett Gliddon, the general manager system design and delivery for NZTA, said overtaking lanes at either end of Dome Valley will be changed to single lanes.

"They are incredibly dangerous ... there have been a number of issues at the end of those passing lanes. They just don't have the width for a safe merge distance," he said.

Calthrop agreed with removing the overtaking lines, but doubted if it would work.

"You cannot change the habit of people," said Calthrop, who despairs when he sees cars driving up the hill overtaking in the fog with no lights on.

The Government's "Safe Network Programme" has been described by Opposition transport spokesman Paul Goldsmith as a "line of sticks separating traffic" with nowhere to pass and lower speed limits; a poor substitute for the highly engineered four-lane state highways National was building.

Herald readers have also criticised the Government's approach.

"Will these barriers stop head-on accidents? Of course in some cases it will help, but will it stop crashes? No," said Robert Bicker, of Gulf Harbour, who called for the transport agency to address drink driving, texting and general attitudes that lead to carnage.

Orewa woman Lois Newby was the victim of a near fatal crash in Dome Valley in 2008.

"The lady came around the corner, lost control, hit the metal barrier on her side, ricocheted across the road, and wrote me off. Speed and inattention was deemed responsible," she said.

Warkworth chief fire officer Ian Davies.
Warkworth chief fire officer Ian Davies.

Ian Davis, the chief fire officer with the Warkworth Volunteer Fire Brigade, has been attending crashes in Dome Valley for 30 years and has no idea what makes the stretch of road so dangerous.

On the day the speed limit was reduced from 100km/h to 80km/h about 10 years ago he was out fishing and his pager went off. There had been a three-car pileup.

"I drive this road quite often myself and you drive to the conditions and 80km/h is not fast through the Dome. I think it is driver education more than anything. You've got to start with driver education," said Davies.

He supports any improvements that makes the road safer, but would like to see the new four-lane Puhoi to Warkworth highway currently under construction extended to Wellsford. NZTA has said it would reduce road deaths in the area by 80 per cent.

Genter said a new Warkworth to Wellsford highway will cost $1.4b to deliver 25km of safe road. For the same money, the Government will deliver 870km of safety improvements to highways, and a similar length of local roads.

It is a "step change" in how we are delivering safety improvements across our highest risk, high-volume roads, she said.

Genter told guests at Dome Valley she had been inspired by countries like Sweden, Norway, Canada and Ireland that had small dispersed populations with large numbers of rural roads, which had dropped road deaths and serious injuries to much lower rates than New Zealand.

"Sweden had a comparable rate of deaths and serious injuries to New Zealand 20 years ago. Today they have less than a third because they have taken a vision zero approach to road safety, a systems approach.

Tamaki Makaurau road policing manager Inspector Scott Webb.
Tamaki Makaurau road policing manager Inspector Scott Webb.

"They haven't simply blamed individuals and bad driving. They have said what is the responsibility, what can we control. We know people make mistakes on the road. How do we have a system that is forgiving enough that they don't die when then make those mistakes?" said the Green Party MP.

Project: Dome Valley, SH1 between Warkworth and Wellsford

36 deaths and 102 serious injuries between 2000 and October 2018. Most crashes involved people crossing the centreline and hitting an oncoming vehicle or running off the road and hitting roadside objects

What's happening?

Installing flexible median safety barriers to prevent head-on crashes on the windy road with poor visibility and steep slopes. Side barriers will be fitted along the road to grab vehicles before they hit something harder like a pole, tree or ditch.

The road shoulder will be widened to make it safer for motorists to pull over and for cyclists. Four new right-turn bays will be built. The northbound and southbound passing lanes at the top of Dome Valley will be replaced with slow-vehicle bays. Several intersections will be improved.

The 15km stretch of road will be completed in five stages. Enabling works will start this summer between Wellsford and Wayby Valley Rd and between Sheepworld and Kaipara Flats Rd. The middle of Dome Valley is the trickiest section. All going to plan, the project will be finished in 2021. Most of the work will be done between 7pm and 7am, Monday to Saturday, to minimise disruption to motorists.

Cost: $35 million

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