Call for change after killer Milford crash

CRASH: The scene of the fatal Milford accident in December 2011.
CRASH: The scene of the fatal Milford accident in December 2011.

A coroner wants stricter enforcement of driver's licence rules for holders of overseas licences, after two tourists died when the vehicle in which they were passengers crashed off the Milford Road.

The crash happened in December 2011 in the area where the road zigzags down from the Homer Tunnel leading to Milford. Four people were in the vehicle.

Coroner David Crerar said the driver Wenling, or Vivian, Dong held a licence issued in China and had applied for a New Zealand driver's licence and passed the theory test, but twice failed the practical test needed to obtain the next stage of the New Zealand licence.

Because she had applied for a New Zealand licence, her Chinese licence was no longer valid in this country, but she presented it for the purpose of renting the Subaru Forester, knowing her New Zealand learner's licence would not be acceptable to the rental company, the coroner said.

The rental agreement signed by Dong designated her as the authorised driver and said the vehicle could not be driven by anyone who did not hold a current full driver's licence.

None of the passengers was an appropriate supervisor.

Crerar said there appeared to be a gap either in the law, or the enforcement of it, which had allowed the scenario to develop and continue.

He noted that in Australia licences issued in other countries were marked as soon as the holder applied for or obtained a domestic licence, to show the overseas licence was no longer valid.

The two people who died were backseat passengers. They were both company directors from Shanghai - a 57-year-old woman, Xing Li Yu, and a 56-year-old man, Yichun Luo.

Had they been restrained by seatbelts their injuries would not have been as serious as they were. Expert analysis was that at least one would have survived the crash if they were restrained, the coroner said.

Dong described the steering as heavy and unresponsive, and the braking as poor, after leaving the viewing area, but Crerar found she probably failed to restart the engine of the Subaru after stopping to view the scenery.

Dong said she had been unable to steer the vehicle around a tight hairpin bend. The Subaru went off the road and hit a large rock about eight metres below the road edge.

Dong said in evidence that she considered she had turned the engine ignition on, and thought the Subaru had stalled.

An engine stall was possible, but the probability supported by most of the unchallenged and incontrovertible evidence was that when the vehicle left the carpark at the viewing area the engine was not turned on, the coroner said.

There was sufficient downhill slope to have allowed the Subaru to have free-wheeled from the position where Dong and other witnesses said it had stopped, out on to the road without the motor having been switched on.

"The extent to which driver inexperience contributed to the crash cannot be determined," the coroner said.

"A driver with more experience than Vivian Dong may have ensured that the Subaru did have its engine turned on, and was in gear, when it left the viewpoint carpark."

The coroner sent a copy of his finding to the police and the NZ Transport Agency.

NZTA said it would be reviewing the coroner's recommendations and discussing them with the Ministry of Transport before responding to the coroner.

Earlier this week, Rotorua coroners court heard details of a crash in which three Boston University students died and one seriously injured near Mt Tongariro in May last year. They were not wearing seatbelts and were thrown from a van, driven by an American student, which hit gravel at the side of the road and rolled three times.

Coroner Wallace Bain reserved his decision.

The Press