Killer trap at the roadside

Loose gravel on the sides of New Zealand roads is proving a death trap for drivers, with four deaths in the past two days likely caused by tyres skidding on stray metal.

Critics say the roads are poorly designed and leave motorists nowhere to go if they wander outside their lanes, with narrow shoulders and a lack of barriers to blame.

» Expert advice on what to do if you hit gravel

Many drivers are also too inexperienced to know what to do if they hit loose gravel, meaning they're likely to over-correct and cause a crash, according to the AA.

However, authorities say the main issue is driver inattention and fixing all the roads to a high standard would cost millions.

Three people, including two children, died in a crash in Helensville last week, reportedly after the 17-year-old unlicensed driver went off the road into loose gravel and lost control of the car. Helensville Volunteer Chief Fire Officer Ian Osborne told One News it appeared the girl had over-corrected and slid into the path of a van coming the other way.

Early yesterday a 19-year-old man died after he lost control of his car, which rolled and ended up in a paddock.

Neighbouring farmers said it appeared he had been speeding down the rural South Auckland road. He went into gravel on the side of the road, ploughed into a ditch and smashed through a powerpole and fence. Three others in the car were injured.

Leading road safety campaigner, Clive Matthew-Wilson, said he believed bad road design was a factor in the Helensville crash.

"Let me be perfectly clear, if the Helensville road had had a centre-lane barrier, this head-on collision would not have occurred," Matthew-Wilson of the website said.

It had been known for decades that gravel and over-correction caused crashes, he said. "Due to the dreadful design of most New Zealand roads, simple mistakes often turn into multiple fatalities."

The fatalities could be prevented by widening roads or rumble strips, which had been proven to be highly effective and cost less than most alternatives, he said.

But NZTA chief safety adviser for highways Colin Brodie said only the most high-risk stretches of road were able to be given that treatment.

To widen the shoulder one metre cost between $100,000 and $1 million per kilometre, he said. NZTA figures show it costs around $13,000 to install one kilometre of rumble strips.

Brodie said almost all New Zealand roads had gravel on the edge, apart from urban streets.

Both of last week's crashes had similarities to another fatal crash in Turangi last year when three American students were killed and four others injured.

The driver, Stephen Houseman, 20, was convicted and discharged of careless driving causing injury, after he struck gravel on the side of the road, over-corrected, and rolled the van.

Bay of Plenty road policing manger, Inspector Kevin Taylor, said Houseman was charged because allowing the vehicle to drift wide of the sealed surface was not the actions of a normal, prudent motorist. "If it was roading conditions [at fault] he would not have been charged. People drive on gravel roads all the time. It's the way you drive on them that makes the difference."

The AA's chief road safety adviser, Mike Noon, said many people didn't know how to drive on gravel.

"We do have a lot of roads that are quite unforgiving if drivers get into that area left of the white line," he said.

"Drivers need to be aware of more than just their lane - they also need to look at the shoulder."

Cars with traction control or ABS braking were also advisable, he said.

But the AA would also support more rumble strips, which it said had been proven to improve lane-keeping and significantly lower the risk, he added.

"There's not a lot of silver bullets in road safety but rumble strips - and wire-rope barriers - are as close as you're going to get."

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Sunday Star Times