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An unrestrained baby sitting on their mother's lap was thrown into the back of the car and is now fighting for life after a crash that police believe involved speed, overcrowding and two bald tyres.
The incident - on the first day of Road Safety week yesterday - has been called "absolutely tragic" by a road safety campaigner.
Police said five of the six people, including a 3-year-old, travelling in the Honda hatchback car were wearing or sitting in approved restraints.
But the infant was sitting in its mother's lap when the west-bound car slid across State Highway 4 on a 65km/h corner and into a bank at Kopaki, about 23km southeast of Te Kuiti.
"Unrestrained, the baby has been thrown into the rear interior of the car and suffered critical injuries," said Waikato road policing manager Freda Grace.
A person known to the family, who are believed to be from Taumarunui, was the first on the scene and is understood to have taken the infant, who is less than a year old, to Te Kuiti Hospital.
The baby was airlifted to Starship children's hospital in critical condition.
The baby's 3-year-old sibling and their mother were taken to Waikato Hospital by ambulance with minor to moderate injuries while three other adults were treated at the scene.
"Their injuries are insignificant next to the child that was unrestrained," said Ms Grace.
Crash investigators are working on establishing what, if any part, two bald tyres on the front of the car played in the driver losing control on the downhill stretch of road.
Ms Grace said it appeared the car was travelling faster than the advised limit and she described the state of the front tyres as "not in the best condition".
She said this was an example where the driver had not taken all the necessary precautions.
"We talk about road policing being everybody's responsibility and that actually starts with the driver of the motor vehicle in the first place."
Caroline Perry, a spokeswoman for road safety charity Brake, said parents had a responsibility to their children to ensure they are protected in vehicles and in proper restraints.
"Allowing your child to ride without one is putting them at huge risk and can have devastating consequences," she said. "This is an absolutely tragic incident. Unfortunately it does demonstrate that children can suffer horrific injuries if they are not properly restrained in a vehicle."
The crash yesterday at 8.30am was part of a horror run on the country's roads.
Last night a woman died in a car crash on State Highway 3 at Ohaupo, near Hamilton.
Two cars travelling in opposite directions collided about 5.50pm, police said.
Another person was airlifted to Waikato Hospital with moderate injuries.
- James Ihaka, NZ Herald