Coroner queries driver assessment

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Samantha and Jesse Shortland on their wedding day. Photo: Supplied

A CORONER’s findings into a 2017 Southland crash have renewed debate over rules about overseas drivers renting vehicles.

Southland parents Jesse and Samantha Shortland (both 28) and 22-year-old German tourist Marina Liebl died in a crash on the Dipton-Winton Highway (State Highway 6), in the Benmore area, on October 8, 2017.

The Shortlands’ young children were injured, but survived.

In findings released last week, coroner David Robinson questioned the standard of assessment for foreign drivers.

He found Ms Liebl’s vehicle crossed the centre line, and had she not, death could have been prevented.

However, other factors, including excessive speed and fatigue on both sides, may have contributed. Mr Shortland’s blood also tested positive for cannabis. He was driving at the time of the accident.

Mr Robinson said while the extent of any impairment was unknown, the absence of a braking response or other evasive manoeuvre was consistent with the effects of cannabis, including taking longer to respond and distorted perception.

It was Ms Liebl’s first time driving on the left-hand side of the road but she had filled out a Safer Driver form when she rented her vehicle from Thrifty NZ in Queenstown.

The form acknowledged her familiarity with New Zealand road rules, that she had driven regularly in her home country, she felt well prepared to drive in New Zealand and she had driven a similar vehicle in the past.

Mr Robinson described the self-assessment form as being “wholly inadequate”, and he encouraged rental car companies to introduce qualitative assessment for determining whether to rent a vehicle to an overseas driver.

A spokesman said Thrifty, like other professional car hire companies operating in New Zealand, followed the Safer Driver guidelines set out by the Rental Vehicle Association (RVA).

“After reviewing the coroner’s report, Thrifty has been in discussions with the RVA regarding how the Safer Driver form may be improved to better assess the driving ability of all customers.”

RVA chief executive Pim Borren said not all rental vehicle companies, particularly smaller operators, used the programme. The only legal obligation for renting a vehicle was to sight a valid overseas driver’s licence.

Were the Government to make those legal requirements more stringent, such as making overseas visitors undergo a practical driving test, that would affect New Zealand’s reciprocal driver licence arrangements with other countries.

Associate Minister of Transport Julie Anne Genter said overseas licence holders, including short-term visitors, generally crashed for the same reasons as New Zealand drivers.

“We can’t only focus on driver behaviour because people will always make mistakes the other countries that have had the biggest reduction in road deaths have really focused on making an environment which is more forgiving.”

NZ Transport Agency Visiting Drivers Project chairman Jim Harland said its project involved a range of organisations, including central and local government and the tourism industry.

“A range of initiatives are in place to reach visitors at each stage of their holiday planning, booking, in-flight, arriving in New Zealand, and when they are actually behind the wheel.”

He said while there were no plans to compel rental car companies to carry out qualitative assessments for determining whether to rent a vehicle to an overseas driver, the Visiting Drivers Project already included a voluntary Code of Practice for rental vehicle operators.

Possibilities of new technology
USING technology could be a solution for testing overseas drivers’ skills when renting vehicles.

The mother of Samantha Shortland, Bryar Hartshorn, said she wanted to see stricter testing or better safety measures in rental cars, such as lane departure warning systems.

Tourism Industry Aotearoa chief executive Chris Roberts said it was unlikely a more thorough interrogation of the driver by the rental company would have changed the outcome of the crash, and she would have still been given the car, given her driving experience.

He said overseas drivers crashed for the same reasons as New Zealanders.

While new technology aids were “constantly looked at”, there was no single solution, he said.

Mr Borren said it was an “urban myth” overseas drivers caused more fatalities than New Zealanders, but the RVA was open to new technology.

Beyond that, testing driving capability was challenging because fatal accidents tended to happen on the open road.

However, this could potentially be overcome by technologies such as in-flight virtual assessment, and safety features could be introduced such as lane departure warning systems, autonomous emergency breaking and speeding alert systems, Mr Borren said.

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