A bus driver who terrified passengers by trying to do a U-turn on a motorway has been diagnosed with dementia only a few months after being medically cleared by NZ Bus to drive.
Frightened passengers yelled at Paea James Kiriona to keep going and not to turn after his Valley Flyer bus unexpectedly left the motorway at the Ngauranga Gorge interchange, instead of heading into Wellington.
He turned on to the exit for Old Hutt Road before realising it was the wrong way. Kiriona then backed up along the exit road, into approaching traffic, before attempting to do a U-turn back on to the motorway.
Prosecutor Alice Handcock said in Wellington District Court yesterday that passengers were yelling and telling Kiriona to keep going, but he ignored them.
Sixty-two-year-old Kiriona had told police when he was spoken to that he believed he had done the manoeuvre safely.
He initially pleaded not guilty to dangerous driving, but after a medical assessment showed he had dementia, likely to be Alzheimer's, he changed his plea to guilty.
His lawyer, Megan Paish, told Judge Peter Hobbs yesterday that Kiriona had been medically cleared to drive by NZ Bus only a short time before the October incident.
However, she had had concerns, and put a letter before the judge outlining the diagnosis. She said Kiriona had lost his job, NZTA took his passenger licence for 18 months, and now his doctor had told him he should not be driving.
Kiriona had been driving for NZ Bus since 1999. He had one previous conviction, for careless driving from 2003.
Paish said Kiriona showed the effects of mental deterioration and needed to be told information repeatedly. He now accepted that his behaviour on the day was unacceptable.
She said he could drive his usual route without a problem, but his route had been changed only a week before the incident.
The judge disqualified Kiriona from driving for 18 months but imposed no other penalty, agreeing that other sentences were probably not appropriate.
He said it was likely that, if not for Kiriona's dementia, the incident would never have happened.
It had been traumatic for the passengers, but happened under unusual circumstances.
- The Dominion Post