13 Jan 2015

Tourist driver mayhem 'hype'

8:40 am on 13 January 2015

Few fatal accidents involve tourists but those that do get far more publicity than crashes involving New Zealanders, the Tourism Industry Association says.

The agency is working on plans to improve road safety for tourists but is warning against over-hyping the issue, after a Rotorua District Court judge said a clear message needed to be sent to foreign drivers who cause "mayhem" on New Zealand roads.

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Photo: 123RF

Judge Weir found Chinese tourist Peng Liu guilty of careless driving causing injury after his car crashed into a vehicle carrying a family of six German tourists, causing serious injury to three of them.

Peng Liu outside the Rotorua District Court

Peng Liu outside the Rotorua District Court Photo: RNZ / Natalie Mankelow

The 32-year-old, who was on a two-week holiday in New Zealand, lost control of the vehicle and crossed the centre line on State Highway 5 near Taupo on 30 December last year.

The judge confiscated Liu's passport, ordered him to pay $20,000 reparation and said this must send a clear message to other foreign drivers who cause mayhem, which he said was happening more and more on New Zealand roads.

Outside court yesterday, Peng Liu told reporters through a translator he was very sorry about the accident, though he expressed some frustration at the sentence.

"I feel a little bit frustrated but still luckily enough no-one died or be killed," he said.

Tourism Industry Association chief executive Chris Roberts said the percentage of fatal accidents involving tourists is small.

"The vast majority of visiting drivers are as safe on our roads as we are ourselves.

"There are a few crashes and incidents that will occur, and they're getting a lot of publicity in recent months but there's no evidence that a visiting driver is any more dangerous on the road than a New Zealander and we need to keep that in perspective."

In a statement to Radio New Zealand, police say of the 239 fatal crashes in 2013, just 11 involved drivers from overseas.

Mr Roberts believes there's a danger of hysteria over the issue.

The tourism and transport industries, police, airports and rental vehicle companies are working together to reduce fatal accidents involving overseas drivers, he said.

"There is a responsibility and we take that very seriously to give visiting drivers as much useful information as possible, and we will have a new website up and running before the end of this month providing a central access point to information and resources for visiting drivers."

Car crash analyst Hamish Piercy said the penalty given to Peng Liu was unusually high and New Zealand could be at risk of creating a dual layer of penalties for tourists and domestic drivers.

Mr Piercey, the director of Longford Consulting, said overseas drivers are over-represented in crash statistics in Otago and Southland and other tourist areas, and one solution might be a centralised 0800 number to report rental cars being driven erratically.

He told Summer Report the problem is that drivers default to their entrenched driving habits in an emergency situation.

Safety programmes

The New Zealand Transport Agency is targeting foreign drivers in the lower South Island and is trialling safety programmes in the area because of its popularity with visitors.

Initiatives include 'keep left' arrows painted on roads in accident hot spots and making New Zealand's road rules clear in a number of different languages.

The agency's southern regional director, Jim Harland, said the Rental Vehicle Association has also modified its agreements to allow companies to terminate a rental contract with a dangerous driver.

"If you have been pulled up for using your rental vehicle in an unsafe manner the police have the ability to now, through the rental vehicle companies, to basically terminate the agreement if that's what the rental car company wants to do.

"And I also understand they're going to share that information between rental providers so that a dangerous can't just walk down the road and rent another vehicle."

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