Warning signs 'may have saved lives'

KATIE CHAPMAN
Last updated 12:02 19/05/2014
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NEW ZEALAND POLICE

CARNAGE: The overturned van driven the wrong way along the motorway by Michel Joseph McKinnon, and the car he hit, killing Nasona Vakai and injuring Nonu Vailahi.

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FAIRFAX NZ
SURVIVOR: Nonu Vailahi.

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Warning signs alerting drivers they were going the wrong way might have prevented two deaths after a "heavily intoxicated" driver went the wrong way on State Highway 1 near Wellington.

A coroner's decision released today has called for the placement of warning signs on a Churton Park off-ramp to be reviewed, following the deaths of Michael McKinnon, 39, of Grenada North, and Nasona Vakai, 51, of Cannons Creek.

Vakai was driving south on SH1, heading to work with a female colleague, about 8.40pm on March 30, 2012, when he was struck head-on by McKinnon, who had turned the wrong way up an off-ramp. He had entered the southbound lane and driving north for 640 metres before the crash.

Vakai died at the scene and McKinnon died later in hospital.

Vakai's passenger - colleague Nonu Vailahi, 21 - suffered moderate injuries. She later told The Dominion Post that she believed Vakai saved her life by turning the car so he would take the full impact.

Coroner Ian Smith's findings said that both men bore some blame for the crash, as both were driving when their licences were disqualified, and both were in unwarranted cars.

However, the "more serious case" was the fact McKinnon was ''heavily intoxicated'' and driving a manual despite his licence restricting him to automatic cars, the coroner said.

Post-mortem tests showed he had a blood alcohol level of 221 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood - nearly three times the legal limit.

There was also evidence he may have smoked cannabis in the 12 hours before the crash.

''Such a high level of intoxication was highly likely to have impaired his judgment and may have affected his ability to make complex routine decisions,'' Smith's findings said.

Speed was not a factor.

Aside from the intoxication, a lack of signage warning drivers they were headed the wrong way up the off-ramp was also a factor, Smith said.

''Despite a concrete footpath at the Churton Park overbridge being curved outwards in an attempt to prevent motorists turning left towards the southbound lanes, there were no warning signs to indicate to motorists that they were about to travel the wrong way into the path of the approaching traffic.''

He noted that the NZ Transport Agency had since improved the road and installed ''no entry'' and ''wrong way'' signs on the off-ramp.

However, he recommended that the placement of the signs be reviewed, and the height adjusted so it was in the sight-line of drivers.

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- The Dominion Post

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