On patrol on the high-risk road to Milford

Last updated 08:34 11/04/2012

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The road from Te Anau to Milford Sound is one of the most dangerous stretches of highway in Southland. Reporter Alana Dixon and photographer Barry Harcourt spent a day on the road with Constable Dwight Grieve, from the Southland highway patrol unit.

The day is almost over when we pull off to the side of the road on the Eglinton Flat, near Mackay Creek.

The weather is fine, if not warm.

There are roadworks going on at a bend further down the road, but where we sit it's just a long, clear stretch ahead.

Somehow I doubt this will take long.

A few cars pass us by. One is pulled over for doing 115kmh.

We're about to call it a day when the radar whirrs, and keeps climbing – 124, 133, 149.

153.

In one motion, the siren starts screaming and Grieve flies out of the car to flag down the four-wheel-drive heading our way.

We watch as Grieve talks to the male driver and his female passenger, both from Brazil, then walks back to the car to do the first of what is bound to be a plethora of paperwork.

When you are caught going 41kmh or more over the speed limit, your driver's licence is automatically suspended, and as soon as you are caught doing 150 or more you aren't just given a ticket – you are arrested, Grieve says.

"He said he needed to go that fast to pass the guy in front of him."

Welcome to life in the highway patrol.

Our day on the Milford Road starts early, in the 50kmh zone heading out of Te Anau.

It's a busy time of day, when the first floods of people going to school, work, or Milford, are starting to hit the roads.

Grieve's not surprised when he pulls over the first offender of the day, driving at 63kmh, 10 minutes after our arrival.

"To be honest, I could sit here all day, and write 20 or 30 tickets easily," he says.

But all along the road, poor driving behaviour is an everyday thing.

There's more to show us, he says.

Like most of the people he pulls over, the couple in the car, here from Britain, are well-mannered and above all, apologetic, he says.

On the Milford Road, people take risks.

The problems start straight away, Grieve says. Often motorists are on the road early, after beginning their journey at Queenstown, and do not realise the trip to Milford takes more than two hours.

They then spend their day on a cruise exploring the Sound, then head to Queenstown or Te Anau – worn out from the early start and full day.

During our time on the road, we see things that would make most people blanch. In a matter of minutes two cars overtake rows of traffic on double-yellows.

One is driven by a German-born, Hong Kong-based doctor.

The other is a middle-aged woman from Te Anau.

Another motorist later in the day, ticketed after his vehicle swerves over the centre line twice, asks Grieve what the speed limit is.

We carry on. On the other side of the Homer Tunnel is the site of yet another crash.

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A Toyota Prado has come out of the tunnel, and, going too fast for the 35km corner, has skidded off the road and landed on its roof in a culvert.

Milford Sound Development Authority operations manager Andrew Welsh, who is also a member of the area's volunteer rural fire brigade, is often seen at the site of a crash. Today is no exception.

At the scene, he says the number of accidents on the road this past summer has been among the worst he can remember.

"I think it's as bad as we've ever had it, to be honest," he says.

"I think people just need to be a bit more aware as to the driving conditions. You need to drive to the conditions, slow down. It's a fantastic trip from Te Anau to Milford Sound – slow down and enjoy the drive."

Staff from Te Anau St John are also charged with dealing with the aftermath when a crash happens along the Milford Road.

Team manager John Lambeth later tells me paramedics have been called to that spot three times this summer alone.

The Milford Road is not necessarily dangerous, he says, but the sheer number of cars driving it each day, coupled with basic errors in judgment, can have serious consequences.

The occupants of the Prado escape with minor injuries – the odd bruise, a scratch here and there – but not every crash ends that way.

St John is called to about two or three major crashes along the road a year. Sometimes, the crashes prove fatal.

Motorists who lose control of their vehicles in this patch, like many who wind up involved in incidents elsewhere along the road, are often simply driving too fast, he says.

Becoming momentarily distracted by the world-renowned scenery on the other side of the windscreen or getting caught out by changing weather conditions can also lead to a crash, as can forgetting Kiwi road rules or plain old poor driving behaviour, like crossing the centre line, he says.

"If you make a mistake, or if you go back to those old driving habits like driving on the right, you've got a recipe for disaster."

The most serious injuries St John staff see usually involve chest or head trauma, and virtually all of the injuries they see on the Milford Road have one thing in common, Lambeth says: they are avoidable.

Te Anau chief fire officer Graeme Humphries has been a volunteer firefighter going on 40 years.

When he first started, firefighters were being called to a crash on the Milford Road nearly every second day, and although the number of call-outs the brigade attend now number about 30 or 40 a year, mainly because of more proactive policing, crashes on the Milford Road still account for most of its emergencies, he says.

"The Milford Road's not dangerous, it's the people that drive on it.

"It's not different to any other roads, it's just that it has different features ... Thirty years ago we had lots of calls out to it, lots of MVAs [motor vehicle accidents]. But people were doing half the speed when they fell off the road ... it wasn't so many serious accidents," he says.

"Now they think because it's tarsealed, and they spent a lot of money straightening it and widening it, it's turned into a racetrack – and that's where they get into trouble."

Contrary to the stereotypes, not everybody pulled over on the Milford Road has a foreign licence.

Kiwis, however, tend to be prone to speeding while the problem with overseas visitors is their lack of knowledge of our country's road rules, Grieve says.

"We want to make some changes, we want to make some improvements, we want to raise awareness."

"But [we don't want to] beat up on overseas visitors, because that's not what it's about," Dwight Grieve says.

He's a firm believer that more needs to be done to educate overseas drivers about our road rules – such as what double yellow lines mean, given that not every country in the world uses those road markings – and is keen to see others, including rental car agencies, work with police to provide tourists with more information about the basics on driving in New Zealand.

"We want to make it as safe as we can for everyone. We don't want people coming over here and getting hurt."

On the Milford Road, the chances of being involved in a crash are higher than on most other roads in Southland.

New Zealand Transport Agency Southland area manager Peter Robinson says the Milford Road is regularly monitored and reviewed for safety.

The Kiwirap system looks at the potential for a crash based on either the number of vehicles using the road, to gauge the "collective risk", or a combination of the number of vehicles and the distance travelled, to determine "personal risk".

It pinpoints the Milford Road as one of the worst in Southland for personal risk, along with State Highway 1 from Invercargill to Bluff and State Highway 96 from Ohai to Mataura.

NZTA highlights several reasons for the road's crash rate: The large number of cars on the road, its length, the distracting scenery along the way, driver fatigue, and the road's layout, which ranges from long straights to tight curves.

Of the 279 reported crashes on the Milford Road between 2006 and 2011, 97 involved tourists and 182 involved Kiwi drivers.

But while tourists accounted for just 35 per cent of reported crashes in that time, they were more likely than Kiwis to be involved in crashes where somebody was injured, Robinson says.

Tourists were involved in two fatal crashes, 16 serious-injury crashes, and 79 minor-injury crashes in that time. New Zealanders were involved in two fatals, 18 serious crashes and 36 minor crashes. There were 126 non-injury crashes, but driver nationality is not recorded.

For the bus drivers who make the trip into Milford each day, those figures – and the near-misses – are an everyday reality. Sitting in the smoko room between trips, Bruce Campbell, Steve Reed, and Frank Dewhurst are all in agreement – the Milford Road is not for the faint-hearted.

"People reckon being a tour bus driver would be a pretty good job, but it's the mental strain [of] just driving to think about as well, and all the dumb b....... around us," veteran driver Campbell says.

Poor driving behaviour is an accident waiting to happen, says Reed.

"What they don't realise is we've got 45 people on our buses. They're not only endangering their little car, but also all those people on my bus, as well as anybody else coming round the corner," he says.

They tell me their horror stories, including several of being passed by a car on a blind corner, before seeing another vehicle heading towards them in the oncoming lane.

"You could damn near have a prang every time you come on here," Dewhurst says.

* Laercio Jose Zuppi Jr, 34, of Brazil, was convicted of driving at a dangerous speed in Invercargill District Court the following day. He was fined $500 and disqualified from driving for six months.

THE NUMBERS

  • Number of reported crashes on the Milford Road, 2006 to 2011: 279.
  • Licence types of drivers involved in reported crashes, from 2006 to 2011: 35 per cent international licences, 65 per cent New Zealand licences.
  • Cause of crashes, from 2006 to 2011: Losing control/head-on collision on a bend, 65 per cent. Losing control/head on collision on a straight, 17 per cent. Rear-end/obstruction, 11 per cent. Crossing/turning, 4 per cent. Overtaking, 2 per cent. Figures: NZ Transport Agency

- The Southland Times

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