Coroner: No charge for dying driver

Former Old Cromwell Town president Max Birtles with former Prime Minister Helen Clark.
Former Old Cromwell Town president Max Birtles with former Prime Minister Helen Clark.

A driver who crossed the centre line, killing a Wanaka bar worker, was not prosecuted because he was dying, Otago Southland coroner David Crerar says.

Kirra Lee Smith, 23, a United States national who worked in a Wanaka bar, was killed in the crash on the outskirts of Alexandra on July 29 last year when Cromwell man Max Birtles crossed on to the wrong side of State Highway 8, near Butchers Dam.

Crerar's report says he is satisfied the evidence shows Birtles' driving was below the standard of a normal and prudent driver and for reasons unknown, but possibly related to illness, he crossed the centre line.

Smith was driving with her friend, Tessa Senior, in the passenger seat when there was a head-on crash.

Birtles, who was terminally ill, faced charges of careless use of a motor vehicle causing death and careless use causing injury but the case was stayed on medical grounds and Birtles died on January 27.

His lawyer previously said he planned to defend the charges.

Crerar's report cites a police crash analyst who had calculated Smith's Toyota was travelling at 90kmh and Birtles' Holden at 100kmh and that the American woman had tried to veer left.

''It is probable that, if Birtles had not been suffering from a terminal illness, he would have been prosecuted by the police and it is probable that a conviction against him for the offences ... would have been entered," the report says.

''Maxwell Birtles recalled pulling the (Holden) Captiva to the road near Fruitlands and thought that this must have been to make a telephone call or write a note necessary for his employment. The next thing he remembered was the collision.''

Crerar's findings say Smith was not able to avoid a crash and must take no responsibility for the head-on.

Birtles was well-known in Central Otago. He had been involved in heritage since the 1980s and was pivotal in the development of the Old Cromwell town precinct.

The Southland Times