'Educate' tourist drivers

TRAGIC: Kenneth Stithem and Kirsten Steinke were honeymooning in New Zealand at the time of the crash that killed Mr Stithem.
TRAGIC: Kenneth Stithem and Kirsten Steinke were honeymooning in New Zealand at the time of the crash that killed Mr Stithem.

Jacqui Aitken doesn't harbour any anger toward the man who took her husband's life.

Mrs Aitken and husband James, 38, were travelling on their motorcycle near Benneydale on January 9, 2010 when they were struck by a French tourist driving on the wrong side of the road.

It was just one of 41 crashes in the Waikato region since 2002 (including 20 in the past five years) involving drivers on overseas licences.

New figures released by the NZ Transport Agency show the tourists were at fault in 78 per cent of the fatal smashes.

The statistics, combined with the recent death of a Chinese visitor in Southland on Sunday, have prompted calls for better education of tourists before they hit the country's roads.

A high-ranking Chinese consulate member has also got involved.

Li Xin, the vice consul-general, has expressed concern for the safety of his countrymen on New Zealand roads, saying more action was needed to protect Chinese citizens from death and serious injury.

Mrs Aitken echoed his calls for more education for tourists, but bears no ill-will towards Frenchman Federic Bignon.

"I'll never be the same again but he [Bignon] didn't mean to do what he did," the 40-year-old told the Waikato Times.

Bignon had been in New Zealand for just one week when he became disoriented behind the wheel and crossed the centre line, colliding with the couple's motorcycle.

Mrs Aitken said the four years since have been a time of heartache, challenges - and choices.

"It's been a long four years, two years in a wheelchair, but I've learnt to live with my difficulties. I've chosen to get on with living, James didn't get that choice."

Chinese tourists comprise the second-largest number of visitors, after Australians, but NZTA figures show they are not the most likely to be involved in crashes in the Waikato region. Australians head the list, followed by Americans, Germans, Canadians and Indians.

Waitomo Mayor Brian Hanna said multiple agencies, including local authorities, were working on road safety, adding that crashes involving foreign drivers was a bad advertisement for New Zealand.

Two North American tourists died in separate accidents in 2012 at the intersection of SH3 and SH37 in Waitomo.

Mr Hanna said rental car companies could do more to educate overseas visitors about New Zealand road rules.

"I know being in the States recently you can quickly revert back to your old habits without thinking about it and that's obviously what happened at Waitomo," he said.

"I wonder if we can't educate visitors before they arrive in the country. When people are on the plane they're sitting for a long period of time and I wonder if there can't be more road safety information given to them, say, in airport magazines."

Rental Vehicle Association chief executive Barry Kidd said the industry had taken a proactive approach.

Road-safety brochures were distributed and safety messages reminding drivers to "keep left" were displayed on most rental dashboards.

Some rental companies also sent tourists road safety brochures at the time of booking.

Waikato road policing manager Inspector Marcus Lynam said the notion of testing overseas drivers' competency before allowing them on New Zealand roads was a good idea "in principle" but many practicalities had to be considered.

"It's balancing what is a safety risk and not impacting on the economic productivity of the country because we rely quite heavily on tourism in New Zealand and we have international agreements with other countries. When New Zealanders travel to Australia should we be expected to go through a competency test before we drive there?"

Fairfax Media