Action on foreign drivers

Horror stories about foreign drivers on southern roads are all too frequent.

Because both they and other road users are at unacceptable high risk of injury, action is required.

The New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) and other relevant authorities need to put their feet on the accelerators and come up with improvements promptly.

It is, literally, a matter of life and death.

New Zealand's roads have steadily become safer.

Attitudes towards drink-driving and speeding are, on the whole, better and driving more mature.

The road toll has fallen steadily over four decades and needs to drop further.

Although advances in emergency services and medical care and safer cars and improved roads have played their part, so too have other changes.

Obtaining a driver's licence has become more difficult.

Foreign drivers, however, are a blackspot.

They are disproportionately involved in serious crashes and there are growing calls for more to be done.

Last Friday, Senior Sergeant John Fookes, from Queenstown, said - at an inquest - that police should be given the power to remove from New Zealand roads drivers deemed incompetent.

Commenting on the deaths of two motorcyclists after they collided near Tarras with a rental car driven by a Chinese woman aged 20, he said police could only forbid individuals from driving by arresting them for a qualifying offence, such as dangerous driving.

The number of Chinese drivers on the roads had noticeably increased, as had the number of crashes and complaints involving Chinese drivers, he said.

The driver in this instance had not driven a right-hand-drive car before, had not driven on the left of the road and was unlikely to have driven faster than 40kmh, the speed limit on undivided Chinese highways.

No wonder the wide open roads of the South are so hazardous.

Otago-Southland coroner David Crerar last year called for tighter regulations for overseas drivers in findings into the deaths of two Chinese tourists near Milford Sound in 2011.

Queenstown Lakes District Mayor Vanessa van Uden, in February, called for a national initiative to reduce the number of crashes involving foreign drivers.

And the death of a Chinese woman in Northern Southland late last year prompted a Chinese consulate official to say more needs to be done to prevent Chinese citizens dying and being seriously injured on New Zealand roads.

While the problems with Chinese drivers seem the most acute, there have also been plenty of incidents with other nationalities.

Basically, under a United Nations road traffic convention, people can come to this country and drive on home licences, with New Zealanders having reciprocal rights.

Here, drivers need to pass a written and two driving tests before being given a full licence, but there are no controls over how overseas licences are obtained.

Perhaps the convention has outlasted it usefulness and a series of bilateral arrangements would be better.

Meanwhile, police need to be able to respond to erratic driving and prevent crashes waiting to happen.

Prudent rental car companies, for their part, should be able to - and should - exercise a simple test and reject customers likely to crash their vehicles.

Encouragingly, education efforts, including the NZTA and Tourism New Zealand launching driving video footage on inbound Air New Zealand flights from China, are being stepped up.

Plenty more vigour, though, is required to warn of the dangers, with rental companies playing their part and doing more than just handing out pamphlets.

The NZTA is in the early stage of a project to address the issues, focusing on the West Coast and popular tourist routes in the southern South Island.

That needs to be advanced expeditiously, while recognising if there were easy answers they would already be in place.

Although the independence and freedom of touring and exploring by car are part of the experience for increasing numbers of visitors, this must not be at the cost of making New Zealand's roads less safe.

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