New Zealand becomes a great holiday pinball machine today when motorists get in their cars and head to the beach.

As the number of people slain in roads accidents heads towards the highest in nine years, holidaymakers are being urged to take extra care on the country's unforgiving roads.

Yesterday, one man died after a ute crashed into the Whanganui River. That meant by last night, 373 people had died on New Zealand roads - the same awful toll as at December 25 last year and six fewer people than last year's total of 378 road deaths.

At its present rate, this year's toll will be the fifth consecutive year it has risen, and the highest overall toll since 2009. Speed played a part in nearly 30 per cent of road deaths.


Today, the Herald begins a series on safety improvements to some of the most treacherous stretches of highways in New Zealand. We tell the stories of families who have needlessly lost loved ones and survivors of horrific accidents.

People like Valerie May, who celebrated her 90th birthday this month. The Te Puke resident would probably not made the milestone if a new median strip at SH1 on the Brynderwyns in Northland had not prevented a car she was in from crossing into the path of oncoming traffic.

And Tina Jenneen, a mother of four who was rescued screaming amid a jumble of crushed steel and inflated airbags in a head-on crash on SH2 between Tauranga and Waihi where 42 people have been killed since 2000.

The Herald is launching an interactive project showing when fatal and serious injuries occur during the Christmas holiday period called "Our most fatal morning".

Using data from the NZ Transport Agency, the project shows more people die and are seriously injured on our roads between midnight and 6am on New Year's Day than on any other day of the year. Since 2000, 12 people were killed and 33 suffered serious injuries after New Year celebrations.

This is nearly twice the next worse morning for deaths and serious injuries on the our roads, Waitangi Day morning, on February 6.

NZTA safety director Harry Wilson said no modern country should accept the level of trauma on our roads that led to 380 deaths and could leave a loved family member tetraplegic or paraplegic.

He says a white line down the middle of the road is no protection, which is why motorists will begin to notice new safety improvements, such as median and side barriers, rumble strips, wider shoulders and intersection speed zones on the country's highways.

These are electronic signs that detect when cars are turning into or out of a side road and signal a lower speed limit. When this happens, a sign will flash, reducing the speed on the highway.

The measures are part of a Government injection of $1.4 billion to make 870km of state highways and a similar amount of local roads safer. Once complete in three years, the improvements are expected to prevent 160 deaths and serious injuries every year.

Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter, who has responsibility for road safety, said motorists would notice a "step change" away from the previous Government's focus on a few short sections of urban motorways to targeted safety improvements on high-volume, high-risk roads.

She said New Zealanders could also expect to see more appropriate speeds on roads and changes to speed camera policy.

"The purpose of the cameras is not to raise revenue, it's to ensure people are driving at safer speeds because that will save lives and reduce serious injuries," Genter said.

The Government's approach to road safety has been criticised by Opposition transport spokesman Paul Goldsmith, who said a line of sticks separating traffic with nowhere to pass and lower speeds were poor substitutes for the four-lane highways National was building.

The Automobile Association is a big supporter of the Government's "reinvigorated" approach to road safety. Principal adviser Barney Irvine said the types of measures being proposed made good sense and would make a meaningful difference.

"But looking at the wider highway network, there are big concerns for us about the lack of firm plans for new roads. No amount of safety retro-fitting will get existing roads up to a standard of safety that a new road would deliver," he said.

Auckland road policing manager Inspector Scott Webb has confirmed officers will focus this summer on the stretches of highway they believe will have the greatest impact on reducing deaths.

After the reduction of 111 road policing staff across New Zealand in 2016, NZTA has boosted funding to get roading police numbers back up towards 1070.

Webb said the police had four messages for motorists this summer: wear seat belts; don't drink or take drugs; don't get distracted, particularly by using a cellphone; and keep your speed down.