Rhys Middleton is never far from his mother's thoughts.
"There wouldn't be an hour that goes by, even through the night, that you don't think about Rhys," says Judy Richards.
Recovering from back surgery at the Tauranga home she shares with husband Clem, Judy says the months since her son was killed have been full of pain.
Says Clem: "It's been hard seeing what Judy's going through. Nobody wants to see anybody lose a child."
Rhys was the third of Judy's four sons and she has filled a room off the lounge with photos and memorabilia of the 23-year-old. "There's Rhys everywhere. It doesn't mean that any of the other boys mean any less, " says Judy, drifting into silence.
Rhys was a barista and bar manager and worked at Tauranga pub Greer's. Judy says he loved "people stuff" and was fond of looking after his regulars. "He'd see them coming into the bar and he'd have their drinks all ready."
One of the regulars says he was a great quiz master and his loss is still deeply felt. Rhys was also a keen motorcyclist, and it was during a ride with his father and one of his brothers that his life came to an abrupt end.
The crash was caused by a Chinese visitor, who drove her vehicle into his motorcycle, catapulting him more than 20m into the air and killing him instantly.
Jieling Xiao was in New Zealand on a one-year working holiday visa, and was sentenced to 17 months in prison for driving described by the district court judge as "grossly incompetent".
Xiao successfully appealed the sentence and was deported late last month, sparking a protest at Auckland Airport by people angry she was allowed to leave the country without serving her reduced sentence of home detention and community work.
SINCE THE day her son died, Judy has wanted to stop anyone else dying at the hands of an overseas driver such as Xiao.
Two days before Xiao was deported on August 26, Judy launched a petition calling on the Government to require overseas drivers in the country for more than three months to sit a New Zealand driver's licence test.
"We don't want any other family to go through what we have. It's just too hard."
By yesterday morning, close to 3300 people had signed the petition and Judy says she will not rest until law changes are made to make the roads safer in the face of rising numbers of overseas drivers on the nation's roads. "We can spend our lifetime doing this if it saves lives," she says. "This is Point 1 of many."
The crash that killed Rhys happened on February 7 on the Napier-Taupo highway as he and brother Ryan and father Mike were returning home to Tauranga from a Waitangi weekend ride with their Road Pirates social motorcycle club.
Ryan witnessed the crash and Mike saw his son's mangled body lying on the highway an hour and a half later.
By her own admission, Xiao was an inexperienced driver, telling police she lacked confidence and had never driven on an open road or in a rural environment at more than 50km/h.
Despite her shortcomings, she and a friend decided to drive the 220km from Napier to Taupo and set off the morning of February 7. The day before Xiao took a practice drive to Waimarama Beach, her friend telling police the then 27-year-old was not slowing down for corners and was turning sharply. The friend said it was not until she asked Xiao to slow down that she felt safe.
On the day of the crash, Xiao was seen driving erratically at speeds varying from 70km/h to 100km/h, and on two occasions before she hit Rhys, she veered off the road.
She may as well have held a loaded gun to his head,to me, it's premeditated.
MIKE MIDDLETON agrees, saying he will never forgive Xiao for killing his son.
"This wasn't an accident. People say everybody has accidents. Yes, we do have accidents, we do make mistakes. She made her mistake the day before getting in the car. She drove off the road the day before. She terrified her passenger the day before, and then she went out saying she was still going to Rotorua the next day. She drove off the road three times. The third time, she got Rhys."
Speaking at his office at Gilmours' Tauranga branch, where he has worked 15 years, Mike says the hardest thing about Rhys' death is "just him not being there, just missing him, and the way he died".
"If he was in the wrong a bit, I could accept that, but he was totally in the clear."
Shortly before hitting Rhys, Xiao's Rav4 veered out of the northbound lane into a fruit and vege shop carpark at 80km/h. Mike says his son would have assumed her vehicle was leaving the road to go to the shop, but instead, it veered suddenly back at what the High Court called "a severe angle" directly into Rhys' path. The police summary of facts says the manoeuvre "was completed at such an angle and speed that there was no where for the motorcycle to have gone before impact".
Like his dad, Rhys began riding motorcycles at 15 and he, Mike and Ryan went on many rides together. Rhys was also close to the other two Middleton boys, Kayne and Tyler, and when they weren't on their bikes, Mike saw him at least once a week, sometimes at Greer's and sometimes when Rhys would pop into his office. "He came in here and he'd sit ... and talk."
Mike was riding ahead of Rhys and Ryan on February 7 and has replayed the moment he last saw Rhys alive over and over in his mind.
MIKE HAD finished breakfast at a roadside cafe in Napier and was keen to get cruising on his Harley. "I said, 'I'll meet you guys on the road. I'll just take my time, you'll catch up,' and Rhys said, 'Wait 10 minutes. We'll just eat.' I still kick myself that if I'd stayed behind the whole thing would've changed because they would've followed me out."
Ryan tried to call Mike after the crash but Mike did not hear the phone ringing in his pocket above the noise of his bike. Ryan then had to break the news to Judy over the phone, a brother and son forced to make a call no mother wants to get.
Mike did not know anything was wrong until he stopped to get fuel in Taupo and saw a bunch of missed calls on his phone. There was also a text from Tyler, asking him to call.
I totally agree with your decision. If people like me have passed local driving test, the chance to cause an accident would be much lower.
Tyler was at Judy's house by this time and had to tell Mike that Rhys was gone. Mike hurried back to the crash scene, arriving about an hour and a half after it happened.
Police were aware that Mike was returning and did not move Rhys, whose body was catapulted on to the opposite, southbound side of the highway.
"He died of one of seven massive injuries he had," Mike says. "He went very high, broke his neck. Some say if it wasn't for his skin, his head would've broken off, he was that badly damaged."
Rhys' Facebook page is testament to his love of motorbikes, with pictures of him on various rides, but his Honda is now "in 1000 pieces", says Mike, and although it would have been salvageable, he could not bear the thought of anyone riding it again. Instead, Mike has used parts of it to make memorials to Rhys, including a cross made from the chain which is serving as a temporary headstone at his grave site.
The family plans to unveil his headstone on September 15, on what would have been his 24th birthday.
SINCE RHYS was killed, three more people have died in crashes caused by overseas drivers, including a motorcyclist three weeks ago.
Dunedin photographer Riley Baker, 26, was killed after Chinese tourist Limin Ma crossed the centre line on State Highway 1 between Palmerston and Moeraki in North Otago to view the ocean. Ma ploughed into Riley's motorcycle and Riley died two days later in hospital. Ma has admitted one charge of careless driving causing death and is due to be sentenced this coming Wednesday, September 7.
On April 30, American tourist Thomas Springer veered into an oncoming car in Northland, killing local women Kylee Rakich and Virginia Pitman. Kylee was pregnant and the driver of her car was also seriously injured. Springer was ordered to pay $24,200 in reparation to the victims' families and disqualified from driving for 18 months.
She should've served some decent sentence to serve a precedent for other people coming in to make them think twice about driving on our roads
Xiao has paid $10,000 in reparation to the Middleton family and both the District Court and High Court found her to be remorseful. But Mike and Judy disagree. They say her expressions of remorse were nothing but an attempt to lessen her sentence. "She says she is remorseful but if she was remorseful, she'd accept what was given to her. Just do the time," says Judy.
Judy says it is "absolutely gutting" that Xiao has been allowed to return to China after spending only two months behind bars and without serving her reduced sentence of nine months' home detention and 150 hours' community work. "[But] we were lucky in a way that she served the jail time she did. Most of these cases get deported."
Under the Immigration Act 2009, the Immigration Service may deport someone serving a sentence of home detention. In Xiao's case, she was deported five days after the High Court appeal judge cut her sentence on the grounds that the District Court had wrongly focussed on the possibility of Xiao being deported in deciding to order a sentence of prison as opposed to home detention.
Both Rhys' parents take issue with the law allowing deportation of overseas drivers such as Xiao sentenced to home detention.
"She should've served some decent sentence to serve a precedent for other people coming in to make them think twice about driving on our roads," says Judy. She and Mike say this is another area of law they want to target for change in the future.
If he was in the wrong a bit, I could accept that, but he was totally in the clear
ACCORDING TO police and the Ministry of Transport, 6 per cent of fatal and injury crashes in the past five years have involved overseas licence holders.
Last year, there were 19 fatal crashes and 101 serious injury crashes involving overseas drivers.
Justice Jillian Mallon, the High Court judge who heard Xiao's appeal, said before releasing her decision that overseas drivers had "become an issue of widespread public concern".
A Transport Ministry report this year on overseas driver crashes says the number of crashes involving drivers from China has increased to about six times what it was in 2005. Drivers from China and India are now involved in a similar number of crashes to Australian and German licence holders.
The top six countries drivers come from are Australia, Germany, China, India, the United Kingdom and the United States.
There were 50 fatal and injury crashes involving overseas drivers in the Bay of Plenty between 2011 and last year, while in South Island tourist areas, crashes involving an overseas driver make up a quarter or more of all road crashes.
The report says 77 per cent of overseas licence holders in crashes are short-term visitors, 14 per cent overseas students, and 9 per cent migrants, and most (68 per cent) of short-term visitor crashes happen on the open road.
Previous petitions to change the law allowing visitors to drive on an overseas licence for a year have failed. For this reason, Judy is focussing on visitors of more than three months in the hopes of giving the petition a more realistic chance of success.
Mike says any statistic is meaningless to him.
"What it means to me is that I'm going to stop another tourist killing another person."
He and Judy would also like to see changes to the regulations governing short-stay tourist drivers, both suggesting even a short 10 to 20-minute test drive with a local official upon arrival would reveal whether tourists planning to rent vehicles were competent to drive in New Zealand.
But for now, Judy is aiming to gain 10,000 signatures to the petition concerning visitors of three months or more and is heartened by the response so far, including from overseas drivers.
Ray Tian writes on the petition page that he is a Chinese citizen who has lived in New Zealand six years.
I have heard many sad incidents caused by careless foreign drivers, for a better and safer New Zealand, further restrict policies are urgently needed.
But perhaps the most poignant words on the issue come from Xiao herself.
In a letter she wrote to Rhys' family and which was read out in court, she says she supports the proposal to require overseas drivers to submit to a New Zealand driver's licence test.
"I totally agree with your decision. If people like me have passed local driving test, the chance to cause an accident would be much lower."
* To view or to sign the petition, click here.