14 May 2012

Fatal crash raises questions about state of roads

9:39 pm on 14 May 2012

A fatal crash in the central North Island has again raised questions about the condition of some of New Zealand's state highways.

Eight American students, most from Boston University in their early 20s, were travelling in convoy with another vehicle of students to the Tongariro Crossing when their van rolled on gravel on State Highway 46, south of the Tongariro National Park, about 7.30am on Saturday.

Three died in the crash and five were hospitalised. One woman remains in a critical condition in Waikato Hospital's intensive care unit, while two women are in a stable condition in Rotorua Hospital. Two other people have been treated and discharged.

The editor of the Dog and Lemon car review website says it appears poor road design contributed to the tragedy. Clive Matthew-Wilson says if the highway had been fitted with rumble strips and the asphalt was widened, it may have alerted the driver as they veered off the road and lost control.

"The evidence does suggest that if it had, for example, rumble strips on the road, or if the asphalt surface had extended another 300 millimetres to the left, this tragedy might not have occurred."

Samuel Charton, an expert in transportation from Waikato University, agrees that rumble strips are effective, but says crashes have multiple causes and cannot be prevented with one solution alone.

Dr Charton says the Government has shifted its funding to big infrastructure projects at the expense of cheap safety improvements which could save lives.

The Green Party agrees, saying the Government's road funding is unbalanced and not enough is being put into safety.

Transport spokesperson Julie Anne Genter says funding has been frozen for roading maintenance and policing for the next 10 years, which is effectively a cut.

Minister defends road safety spending

Associate Transport Minister Simon Bridges rejects that and says despite tight economic conditions, there is a record level of investment going into maintaining and operating the road network.

He says priorities in safety spending include installing barriers, improving line markings and creating better passing opportunities.

Crash road rated an average highway

Automobile Association spokesperson Simon Lambourne says the section of highway where Saturday's accident happened is by no means the worst in New Zealand and is rated three out of a possible five stars in the country's road assessment programme.

About half of the state highway network is considered three-star, or average condition.

"About 56 percent of it is three-star. So, all things considered, this is a road in average condition. Three-star roads are typically undivided

and they do have some deficiencies ... be it the alignment or the roadsides or poorly-designed intersections."

The Automobile Association says many other factors will prevent crashes, including safer vehicles, good driving skills and making speed limits suit particular roads.

Ken Shirley, head of the Road Transport Forum, described Mr Matthew-Wilson's comments as a knee-jerk reaction and said the most likely cause of Saturday's crash are common to all crashes - excessive speed for the conditions, driver fatigue and inattention.

What caused the crash is now in the hands of the Serious Crash Unit and will be the subject of coronial inquiries.

Students warned of dangers - university

Boston University says the students killed and injured were warned about the dangers of driving in New Zealand.

Spokesperson Colin Riley told Radio New Zealand's Morning Report programme more than 2000 of its students go on exchange each year and all are warned about the dangers of travelling in foreign countries.

Mr Riley says a candlelight vigil has been held at the university for those involved in the crash.