A $30m upgrade has begun at a Bay of Plenty black spot to help prevent crashes between Tauranga and Rotorua, but that will only fix part of the problem, police say.

New Zealand Transport Agency announced this week safety improvements including widening the stretch of State Highway 33 at Three Mile Hill near Paengaroa, where there has been a spate of serious crashes.

Acting Western Bay of Plenty head of road policing Senior Sergeant Wayne Hunter said driver inattention was to blame - not the road.

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"In one example, the driver was looking down to pick something up out of a bag in the centre console and, by the time he looked up, he was across the road and heading into the [other vehicle] ."

Hunter said drivers did not always switch out of "speed mode" between travelling the straights and approaching the bends at Three Mile Hill.

Maketu firefighter Shane Beech also said it was disturbing the brigade was going back there so frequently.

"You've got to ask the question - why?" he said. "Of the last three or four crashes there, they've been single-vehicle crashes. Cars rolling or leaving the road and ending up in a ditch, and they have all been within a kilometre of each other."

Beech was hopeful the roadworks would make a difference.

"When they did the Maungarangi S-bends - that was a real black spot, we were there quite often. But, touch wood, since they did the roadworks there we've only been there once or twice in the past half-dozen years."

From 2006 to 2015, 16 people were killed and 46 seriously injured on SH33 between Rotorua and Paengaroa. Most of these crashes were head-on or involved drivers running off the road and hitting trees, poles or deep ditches.

New Zealand Transport Agency's Harry Wilson said the changes were based on feedback and research and would be done in three stages, ending in 2019.

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Western Bay of Plenty District Mayor Garry Webber said the improvements were critical and the council was "extremely nervous at what the new Government might do".

"When you look at the roads, we've had some horrific death rates. They are a reflection of traffic intensity now compared to when the roads were built in the '40s and '50s."

The works are part of the former Government's $600m Safe Roads programme and Tauranga MP Simon Bridges, the former Transport Minister, said Three Mile Hill was a treacherous stretch of road needing attention.

Rotorua MP Todd McClay said the works were timely and needed as so many people now commuted between the cities.

Associate Minister of Transport Julie Anne Genter said there would be no changes to the safety works on SH33 as "the number of deaths and serious injuries on our roads is unacceptably high".

"This Government will make road safety a higher priority. That means we want to see more investment right across the county to address high-risk stretches of road."

Genter did not say whether changes would be made to other highways in the Safe Roads programme, including SH2.

SH33 improvements

A wide centreline will be installed to help reduce head-on crashes and flexible roadside safety barriers are expected to stop vehicles from running off the highway. The road will also be widened to help drivers recover if they veer off the road.

Timeline

November - Construction starts

2018 - Seek final approval to start stage two construction and start work (late 2018).

2019 - Seek final approval to start stage three construction and start work (late 2019).

2021 - All going to plan, all three stages will be completed mid 2021.

Source - NZTA