This summer, a 22km stretch of State Highway 1 will heave with holidaymakers. Kristin Edge looks at why the notorious section of road is so deadly.

It was a typical balmy summer's evening on Christmas Day 2015.

Traffic on State Highway 1 south of Whangārei was bumper to bumper about 6.30pm as holidaymakers travelled towards to their favourite summer spots.

For one Whangārei family it meant packing up their two cars and heading for their caravan at a popular seaside destination, Sandspit, near Warkworth. It was a family tradition but it could have been their last.

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A rental car driven by French tourist Remi Morilleau crossed the centre line and slammed into the vehicle driven by Aynslie Holland and carrying her daughter Maddie Adams. The northbound car spun out of control before striking the following vehicle driven by Holland's husband, Martin Adams. Their youngest daughter Emilie was a passenger.

"I remember swearing and thinking, s***, what's he doing?" Holland says.

"And then I just slammed on the brakes and moved to the left, hoping he would go back on to the other side," Holland says. "Then I knew we were going to get hit."

She wipes away tears.

"Maddie called out ... I just remember saying 'We are going to be okay'. Then it stopped, it was very quick."

She asked if Maddie was all right then instructed her to get out and "get daddy to call an ambulance".

Martin Adams watched the horrific few seconds unfold.

"The car from the other side of the road, that was travelling north, just didn't go around the corner and came across the middle line," he says.

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"Aynslie swerved as much as she could but it hit them head-on on the front driver's corner and spun them around on to the barrier on the side. Then it spun around and hit Emilie and I and pushed us across the road into the other lane.

Maddie Adams, Aynslie Holland, Emilie and Martin Adams, above, share their memories of the crash that killed French tourist Remi Morilleau on Christmas Day 2015. Photo / John Stone
Maddie Adams, Aynslie Holland, Emilie and Martin Adams, above, share their memories of the crash that killed French tourist Remi Morilleau on Christmas Day 2015. Photo / John Stone

"It was totally unbelievable really. Nightmare stuff. All the airbags in that vehicle had activated so I couldn't see in the car. I put my head in the car and didn't know what to expect."

Holland had to be cut from the car. The force of her foot on the brake had caused her pelvis to shatter and dislocate. She also suffered a fractured back, cheek and nose.

The rest of the family were uninjured. Morilleau died in the crash and his partner was seriously injured.

Holland had surgery the same day, then more surgery at North Shore Hospital two days later. She was wheelchair-bound for eight weeks and had to learn to walk again.

The family spoke about their chilling brush with death in the hope people will think about their own driving behaviour.

THE NOTORIOUS SECTION OF SH1

From just south of Whangārei at Toetoe Rd to the roundabout with Port Marsden Highway near Ruakākā - is Northland's biggest killer.

Since 2008, 19 people have died on the road and more than 40 have been seriously injured. It has had more fatalities per kilometre - 0.74 - than any other sections of the highway.

In September, the road was identified as one of 10 that will come under tougher police scrutiny in an effort to reduce serious crashes.

The NZ Transport Agency generated the list by taking into consideration historical crash data, traffic volumes, speed surveys and physical road characteristics.

The road had already been a focus of vigorous patrolling by police.

"In our weekly taskings, that specific piece of road has been a focus for the last 18 months," highway patrol Senior Sergeant Ian Row says.

Speed-camera vans are being used in an effort to make the road safer and encourage better driving.

Northland roading officials and local body politicians are pushing for a four-lane highway, citing safety, access and resilience as reasons. But a change of Government has seen a different focus on roading and meant the four lanes are now not an option.

An alternate road, running parallel to the state highway, was in October given the go-ahead for the long term while safety improvements continue in the interim. They include fluorescent poles on the centre line, more passing lanes, pullover bays and upgraded intersections and median and side barriers.

John Bain, chairman of the Northland Regional Council's regional transport committee, has long pushed for changes to make the road safer and to ensure Northland's economic lifeline is strengthened.

In summer, total traffic flow is three times Northland's population.

"This is the absolute arterial route for Northland, it is the life blood for Northland," says Bain.

"Every tourist, every bit of freight that leaves here, goes down this road and it's important we maintain it."

Bain says the previous plan for the four-lane highway would have taken out much of the heavy traffic. He has not given up on the plan and hopes remedial work on the existing route will lower the crash rate.

He says successive Governments have to take some of the blame for the roading issues.

FIREFIGHTER JEFF D'ATH

He has been called to hundreds of crashes in his 27 years with the Ruakākā brigade.

"You don't really harden up to it. Life is life and death is death. We have all got families, we have all got lives and it's a waste to see them get taken that regularly," he says.

As a Ruakākā local, D'Ath drives the road twice a day to and from work in Whangārei.

So when the station siren sounds, it's a mix of emotions. As the truck heads to the job, D'Ath plans how to deal with what he will be faced with.

"I think about who is in the truck with me. We have a bunch of new firefighters. Some of those guys have never been to the sort of trauma we might expect but sadly that's a big part of what we see.

"I work out who is coming in to do the work, who is staying back to look after traffic and keep the scene safe without getting into the messy bit."

Often he knows the people involved. "I think about who is at home and probably doesn't even know what is happening, and that could be a wife or husband."

Ruakaka station officer Jeff D'ath. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Ruakaka station officer Jeff D'ath. Photo / Michael Cunningham

It's the police officer's job to knock on the family's door to deliver the news that someone they love has been killed in a car crash.

"It's a horrific job. It doesn't get easier with age," says Inspector Wayne Ewers, who has been in the police for 34 years.

"It's the look on their face, they know [why] you are there and it's not good. You know the pain of what they are going through and the pain they are dealing with."

WHEN SH1 IS BLOCKED

When the wheels on Ian Newey's fleet of 11 logging trucks stop turning, it has a massive impact on his business. Newey, director of IK&SM Newey Transport based out of Ruakākā, is also chair of the National Road Carriers for the Whangārei district.

His trucks haul logs from across the region, from Kaitaia to Pouto.

"The importance of that section of road to the business is crucial. It's a corridor and it's the backbone of our industry."

Newey believes a long-term vision is needed to future-proof the roading system.

"If you don't believe the way Northland is tracking with its economy and the popularity ... if you don't believe that's going to increase the traffic, then you've got rocks in your head," he says.

The road is the "economic lifeblood", says Northland Regional Council chairman Bill Shepherd.

"Ninety-eight per cent of Northland's freight goes down the highway between Whangārei and Auckland, and that's the heavy freight, and 100 per cent of personal and tourist traffic goes on that road so it is Northland's economic lifeline."

Since his election to council he has been part of a team that presented a collective view to the Government that a four-lane highway was the most important issue for Northland.

A report by the Ministry of Transport shows the social cost of a fatal crash in Northland on the open road is more than $5 million. A serious crash is estimated to be over $1m, while minor crashes cost $113,000.

IT IS still not clear where the new road, running from south of Whangārei at Loop Rd to the roundabout at Port Marsden SH15, will go.

General manager of system design and delivery Brett Gliddon says two separate routes would improve resilience and provide greater choice.

In the short-term, the agency has promised to deliver safety improvements and more reliable access on the existing state highway while planning for a new route.

Whangārei MP Shane Reti says the road falls short of the four-lane highway that Northlanders want and need.

"I drive this road usually twice weekly on the way to Parliament and it is clear why it is the deadliest police hotspot road ... Bring back the four lanes," Reti says.

Whangārei mayor Sheryl Mai says she welcomes any safety improvements provided by the proposed new route, but added a four-lane divided highway is the best result for safety and efficiency.