A return to pre-Covid levels of tourists driving on the West Coast is raising concern as emergency services mop up an increasing number of crashes involving foreign drivers.

Greymouth’s John Paul II High School librarian Sue Johnson died on January 14 after her vehicle collided with a tourist at Porters Pass on the Arthur’s Pass Highway.

Her husband Ian, the principal of St Patrick’s School, remains in a serious condition in hospital while a 47-year-old man from Korea will appear in court on Monday for careless driving causing death.

On January 12, American tourist Brett Reck hit an oncoming car after driving for at least 10 minutes on the wrong side of the road in the Maruia Valley — despite a following vehicle beeping its horn and flashing headlights to grab his attention.

He was convicted of dangerous driving and drink driving in the Nelson District Court on January 16 where Judge Tony Zohrab described the incident as “appalling”.

There have also been other near misses on the West Coast in the past week:

  • A Greymouth group were allegedly hit head-on in their van at Flock Hill when a visiting driver allegedly crossed the centre line on January 11.
  • A tourist crossed the centreline and collided with another vehicle head-on on State highway 73 near Arthur’s Pass on January 16.

“We seem to be getting back to normal tourism in New Zealand where people are drifting onto the wrong side of the road,” Arthur’s Pass Rural Fire Force controller Nic Manery said of the January 16 crash.

West Coast Regional Transport Committee (RTC) chair Peter Ewen said the region’s roads are clearly busier but unfortunately it came at a cost with more tourists.

“We’ve got to be a bit more vigilant. People are too busy gazing at the scenery,” he said.

Driver education at the border and ensuring visual lane direction cues in rental vehicles was vital, Ewen said.

“What gripes me and a few people … is that the powers that be say the tourists involved in accidents is lower now. But tell that to Kiwis who suffer from visiting drivers.”

West Coast Regional Council chair Peter Haddock said if everyone stayed in their lane “there wouldn’t be any accidents”.

Haddock, a West Coast Regional Transport member for 16 years, said he would raise it at the RTC next week after witnessing numerous rental vehicles drifting into the wrong lane or failing to pull to the left this summer.

This led to frustrated local drivers often making poor decisions to get past, he said.

“It’s really good to have our overseas tourists here — that’s for sure — but what I’ve observed is that a lot of people don’t know the signs in New Zealand,” Haddock said.

However, he said it was a complex issue. For example, road markings and signs not familiar or to the same standard visitor drivers were used to, he said.

“I know we need tourists, but we definitely need a lot more education,” he said.

West Coast Police prevention manager senior sergeant Brent Cook said the return to pre-2020 visitor driver levels is obvious this summer.

West Coast police had seen a corresponding increase in complaints with highway patrols beefed up as a result.

“Our response levels are back to pre-Covid. We’re getting the associated calls for service around driver complaints,” Cook said.

However, things had changed since Covid with almost continuous cellphone coverage available now along the main entry point via Arthur’s Pass/State highway 73, resulting in increased complaint calls on that route.

“There’s a lot more opportunity now to call police to notify us of incidents.”

Cook said most complaints arose out of other driver frustration, “driven by slow drivers”.

However, the dynamics of self drive tourism had also changed significantly since Covid.

Tour buses had largely not returned and there were less cumbersome 4WD hire vehicles, which can be harder to handle for inexperienced drivers.

“We’re back to campervans and small rental vehicles from what we used to have.”

Overseas motorcycle tourists in organised groups had also emerged.

The NZ Transport Agency have been approached for comment.

By Brendon McMahon, Local Democracy Reporter

LDR is local body journalism co-funded by RNZ and NZ On Air