5 Jul 2017

Tourist driver 'just hit me head on'

8:13 pm on 5 July 2017

A couple who survived a horrific collision with an American tourist in Waikato have added their voice to calls for compulsory driving tests and better driver education for visitors to New Zealand.

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Photo: 123rf

Teresa and Gary O'Donnell say they feel let down and angry at the punishment the 23-year-old man received for hitting their car head-on after driving on the wrong side of the road.

The man was disqualified from driving for eight months and ordered to pay $5000 in reparation after pleading guilty to a charge of careless or inconsiderate vehicle operation causing injury.

Ms O'Donnell said they were driving into Matamata three weeks ago when the tourist's car came towards them.

"Obviously I just feared for me life, I thought I was going to die. Very, very quick thinking at the time I turned the car onto the grass verge to my left-hand side and the tourist guy that was heading towards me in my lane, he was following me. So he just hit me head on."

Ms O'Donnell said the crash has been physically and emotionally traumatic.

"Horrendous, absolutely horrendous. I didn't know whether we were going to survive to be perfectly honest with you."

The crash has left them with significant injuries including a compound fracture to Ms O'Donnell's left knee. Her husband Gary fractured his pelvis, wrist, and right rib and broke his toe.

Ms O'Donnell is now calling for overseas visitors to sit driving tests and be better educated about New Zealand roads and driving conditions.

The British-born New Zealand citizen said the problem of foreign drivers seemed to be getting worse.

"Just about everyday you read in the news that something's happened. You know I've seen it even around the Waikato, like there's tourists and they've got these little GoPros in the cars and I've watched them and they're not even watching where they're going."

A petition calling for foreign drivers staying longer than three months to sit a full driving licence test was presented to Parliament in February.

But Automobile Association policy manager Simon Douglas said having a driving test for vast numbers of visitors was not practical.

"We get something like three and a half million visitors arriving every year. At least 60 percent of those drive and that is vastly more driving tests than we could hope to roll out at the border."

The chair of a project to improve the safety of visiting drivers, the Transport Agency's Jim Harland said every crash involving death or injury is a tragedy, but they're already working to educate tourists.

"A significant education campaign which does have billboards around the theme of New Zealand roads are different, keep left, allow extra time. There is also when you arrive to pick up a rental car or you're at your accommodation establishment, they both have codes of conduct for their members to ask you questions and give you advice around New Zealand driving behaviour and expectations."

The visiting drivers project is also making improvements to roading infrastructure such as directional arrows, rumble strips and laybys, which have predominantly been rolled out in tourist hot spots in the South Island.

Mr Douglas said the AA wants the project rolled out to other key tourist routes around the country.

"The sorts of infrastructure programmes that they are rolling out in those areas, the AA thinks are desperately needed in some other areas of New Zealand where we get high concentrations of visitor drivers."

Matamata Piako Mayor Jan Barnes said tourist numbers in her district have ramped up with the arrival of Hobbiton but a lot of work has gone into making the roads safe for them and local residents.

"I know that there has been a huge amount of effort and dollars going in on roading particularly and signage... Our staff, NZTA, Hobbiton we have been trying to work on different areas to make our roads as safe as we can."

Mr Harland said there were signs the visitor drivers project was making progress because the number of crashes involving visitors has remained steady despite visitor numbers increasing in the last few years.

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