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World

New Zealand seeks to appease residents' anger at foreign drivers

New Zealand has a reputation as an easygoing country. But now, authorities there are concerned about vigilantes taking tough action against foreign drivers they see as a danger. Blair Cunningham reports from Wellington.

Tourists driving in New Zealand have to cope with a number of unfamiliar driving conditions, starting with what is often the "wrong" side of the road.

But now, they have something else to worry about: following a spate of recent fatal road accidents involving drivers from abroad, a growing number of New Zealanders, especially in South Island "black spots," have taken matters into their own hands and snatched car keys off the drivers. In one case, a tourist was even punched in the face.

Authorities are now seeking to solve two problems: combating accidents caused by tourists, and appeasing concerned New Zealand residents.

Temporary driving ban

Some ideas to help stop such accidents, and thus also traffic vigilantism, have come from road safety campaigner Clive Matthew-Wilson.

Clive Matthew-Wilson

Matthew-Wilson wants a registry of foreign drivers

He wants to see restrictions placed on visiting drivers for the first 24 hours after they arrive in the country, and he wants the government to introduce a registry of foreign drivers. That would require all rental vehicle companies to log details of visiting drivers. If there were concerns about driving behavior, police would be able to restrict further use.

Drivers, including New Zealanders who've just returned from holiday, would then be required to pass a competency test before being allowed behind the wheel.

Tragic accidents

Matthew-Wilson says that's the best and only way to combat the vigilante actions, which have been fueled by a series of serious accidents involving drivers from other countries over the past months.

Just over a week ago, 26-year-old German tourist Daniel Muller appeared in the Christchurch District Court on a charge of careless driving for causing the death of a mother-of-two on February 23.

He was due to fly out of the country and return to Germany at the end of March. Police alleged Muller and another German tourist drove through a stop sign before crashing into the woman's vehicle.

He's expected to be sentenced this week.

But Muller's crash is just one part of the story. Road toll figures already stand at 58 for the year. This time last year, there'd been 49 deaths on the roads.

In the most tragic period in the last fortnight, there were eight road deaths in as many days, including three American citizens; a Chinese tourist who collided with a truck carrying livestock; a Taiwanese tourist on holiday with his family; and a New Zealand five-year-old who died in a head-on collision with a Chinese visitor.

'Stay friendly'

The advocacy manager for The Tourism Industry Association (TIA) representing New Zealand tourism operators, Steve Hanrahan, told DW he's also worried about the vigilante action New Zealanders are resorting to.

Hanrahan

Hanrahan is concerned about the country's image

He said that sort of behaviour was never acceptable, and instead suggested that angry residents had a "friendly conversation" with the offending driver.

“That way it would remind them of New Zealand's road rules and etiquette, giving the visitor a positive experience of New Zealand hospitality,” Hanrahan said.

He also called for calm, saying the figures needed to be put into perspective. He said there hadn't been a major surge in the number of traffic accidents involving foreign drivers in the past decade, with the latest recorded figures, from 2013, showing that just 2.9% of fatal crashes involved tourists.

'Not just a visitor's problem'

Clive Matthew-Wilson also doesn't condone taking tourist drivers' keys off them, as some irate New Zealanders have done, but told DW more was needed than simply having a "friendly conversation."

He accuses the government of being "terrified" to try out another of his ideas: mandatory testing. The testing would take place at the rental vehicle company soon after a visitor's arrival.

He expects about 20 percent of all visitors would fail such a test, but admits that's only a rough estimate.

Unsurprisingly, the Tourism Industry Association doesn't support the idea. Steve Hanrahan says the common issues of fatigue and unfamiliarity with the roads aren't just a problem for visitors.

And although the Rental Vehicle Association doesn't want New Zealanders taking action into their own hands, it also doesn't want to stop people renting vehicles.

“Taking vigilante action is giving the country a bad image...but it's not as simple as stopping people from renting vehicles, because New Zealand is a signatory to the United Nations convention on traffic,” says the association's president Ian Berrington.

Government projects

So what's the solution? The government has just announced a raft of road improvements it hopes will help curb the crashes. It says it already spends around 400 million New Zealand dollars (271.44 million euros) every year to improve road safety throughout New Zealand.

Its visiting drivers signature project goes beyond this and targets the Otago and Southland regions.

Associate Transport Minister Craig Foss has pledged to extend the project to include the West Coast while also fast-tracking other improvements in the regions.

Those will include another 50 kilometers (31 miles) of center-line rumble strips; 140 kilometers of no-passing markings and 200 kilometers of keep-left arrows to be painted on the highway.

New driver safety website

But the measures have been slammed by Clive Matthew-Wilson as nothing more than PR spin.

He told DW the measures don't deal with the major issues.

"First, tired or incompetent drivers are still free to rent cars. Second, the announced extensions to the installation of rumble strips were already planned years ago; the timing has merely been bought forward. The government has not announced any significant increase to median barriers or roadside fencing, which are an equally high priority."

The Tourism Industry Association's Hanrahan is also working on another industry initiative, the Drive Safe website. It was set up recently as a partnership between the TIA, New Zealand Transport Agency and other related businesses.

Hanrahan says industry leaders want to encourage visitors to use the website at every stage of their trip. It provides basic information about New Zealand road rules and etiquette, along with links to more details about everything drivers unfamiliar with the roads need to know.