No easy answer to tourist driving dilemma

A ''problematic'' dilemma sees rental car companies hiring cars to tourists who can have little driving experience, little understanding of New Zealand's roads or who make blunders such as stopping in the middle of the road to take photos.

Southern district road policing manager Inspector Andrew Burns said it was ''really difficult'' from a rental company point of view as they were operating a business, but he acknowledged they ''have got to have some social responsibility''.

''The issue is we are signed up to a United Nations convention [on road traffic] ... which allows people to come into New Zealand and drive on their home country licence - that's the problem.''

Parties to the 1949 and 1968 Convention on Road Traffic number more than 100.

He said the issue of restricting tourists' licences was ''subjective'' because it was a two-way street.

''If you hop on a plane and fly to the States, you have the same rights as someone who comes to New Zealand.

''I don't know what the best answer for it is.''

Queenstown and its surrounds, with its widely promoted scenery and sometimes challenging roads, has no shortage of tourists in rental cars making headlines for dangerous driving.

Last Sunday, a group of six Indian tourists in a rental car convoy were stopped by police after complaints were received about the drivers crossing the centre line.

The six drivers were forbidden from driving and the tour organiser subsequently hired a bus for the group to travel in.

And earlier this week, a victim of a crash in Central Otago caused by an inexperienced foreign driver in a rental car, which killed her partner and a friend, called for rental car companies to impose tougher controls. Sergeant Kate Pirovano, of Queenstown, said crossing the centre line was one of the most common driving complaints police received.

Sgt Pirovano suggested drivers might cross the line for many reasons, including because they could do it in their own country with impunity or possibly ''because they are distracted and looking at scenery or they could be just lazy''.

She said many countries had wider roads, with clear median areas between lanes in place of a centre line of four inches of white paint, which was commonplace in New Zealand.

Police had stopped and given foreign drivers infringements for taking movies while driving, looking through binoculars while driving and also taking photos.

Essentially, ''we are handing the keys to a vehicle which, if it's not handled right, it can kill people and affect lives forever'', Sgt Pirovano said.

''It is a lottery - you don't know who you're giving the keys to.''

New Zealand police have no way of knowing how foreign drivers obtained their licences.

All New Zealanders have to pass a written test and two driving tests before being given a full licence, but overseas driving tests are not regulated by New Zealand police.

If the tourist is coming from a country which has signed the convention, they are eligible to drive in New Zealand, regardless of how they obtained the licence.

Collectively, rental companies and other agencies could do much more to help educate tourist drivers about New Zealand's rules and roads, Sgt Pirovano said.

She said it had to be a consistent and united approach, not a collection of different pamphlets and resources.

She echoed Inspector Burns by saying the companies were in their individual pursuit for business, but acknowledged some companies were trying to ensure drivers were fit for New Zealand roads.

Education needed to be across the board. For instance, if a ''scratchie'' test was created, it would need to be implemented across all rental car companies, she said.

Letting tourists drive themselves around New Zealand was ''really good for the country, but alongside that we have this emerging risk which we have to carefully manage and balance''. The risk would only increase as the country's rural roads became more populated.

''Luckily we don't have the traffic density ... but as we know the population is increasing, and the risk needs to get sorted.''

Sgt Pirovano helped create a kiosk which is intended to help foreign drivers learn New Zealand's rules and is in place at Queenstown Airport.

The kiosk has a computer screen which users can interact with.

''I put that out there hopefully for a company to say `right, I'd like to develop this further'.''

But so far, no rental car company had formally tried to ensure foreign drivers used the kiosk, though she said some were actively encouraging people to use it.

She suggested the safe driving message could be conveyed to tourists through a variety of outlets, such as screening educational videos on incoming planes where there was a ''captive audience''.

In a statement, Tourism New Zealand said its role was to market the country internationally as a visitor destination.

The statement said information on driving in New Zealand was available on Tourism New Zealand's website newzealand.com and general safety information, including driving, was available through the i-Site Visitor Information Network.

Rental Vehicle Association New Zealand chief executive Philip Manning surveyed some members throughout the country at the request of the Otago Daily Times and said the association and members would be happy to engage with authorities and the Government if it was deemed appropriate that New Zealand's participation in the convention would be reviewed.

Mr Manning emphasised the fact rental car companies could not discriminate or turn away customers if they had a valid licence from a country participating in the convention as ''it's accepted that's a bona fide qualification'' for up to a year.

He said the association acknowledged driving on New Zealand roads could be challenging for tourists, for both those from traditional markets such as the United States and also from emerging markets such as Asian countries.

Destination Queenstown, which promotes Queenstown nationally and internationally, said it was open to talking with the police about the matter.

The Otago Daily Times contacted five rental car companies with branches in Queenstown - Jucy, Avis, Ace, Budget and Apex - and asked each to comment on what was being done to help prevent accidents caused by tourist drivers.

Avis declined to comment while the other four did not provide a response after two weeks.