Blame drivers not rental firms: judge

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A Queenstown judge says rental car firms aren’t to blame for hiring vehicles to inept tourist drivers who cause crashes.

Chinese driver Qian Li, 34, was sentenced in the Queenstown District Court yesterday on three charges of careless driving causing injury after a horror head-on smash on Gibbston Highway on February 21.

Judge Christina Cook disqualified Li from driving in New Zealand for 10 months and ordered to pay $2500 each to her British victims for emotional harm. 

Li’s lawyer Bryce Whiting submitted that “serious questions have to be asked whether it is responsible for these people to be given rental cars” to drive on challenging Central Otago roads at speeds they are uncomfortable with.

But Cook dismissed this.

”I do not accept the submission from Mr Whiting that rental car companies are at fault in respect of this matter,” she said.

“Miss Li, in taking the step of hiring a vehicle and driving in New Zealand should have, before she took that step, been confident to drive in New Zealand conditions and been aware of the challenges of driving on New Zealand roads.”

In recent weeks following a spate of serious accidents, there have been widespread calls for firms to be required by law to test tourist drivers’ skillset before handing over keys. 

After the Gibbston crash, British couple Paul, 57, and Rosa Whitmell, 54, were taken to hospital with serious injuries. Li’s passenger and friend Mingyue Shen was also injured in the smash. 

A witness saw Li veer left before over-correcting, causing her Toyota Corolla rental car to cross the centreline and crash into the front driver’s side of the Whitmells’ rental car.

Checks on the vehicle’s “black box” showed it was travelling at 95kmh at the time and conditions were fine.

Whiting said Li, of Hangzhou, was used to driving a maximum of 60kmh on single-way motorways, or city driving.

Cook said: “It is unknown why Miss Li veered across the road and on to the other side. I accept that this was not a sustained period of dangerous driving but, clearly, as the charges laid reflect, an error of judgement which had substantial consequences.”

Li was also fined $500 on the charge of careless driving causing injury to Miss Shen, with $130 court costs, but no reparation was sought from Miss Shen, who sustained a cut to her eye, facial cuts and bruising.

Paul Whitmell suffered a punctured lung, broken foot, broken ribs, fractured elbow, facial injuries, cuts and bruising, and needed surgery.

His wife sustained rib and sternum fractures, a fractured wrist, fractured eye socket, and abdominal internal injuries.

Paul Whitmell called for and prison sentences for people whose poor driving caused death or serious injury, and more guidance from rental companies to prevent further deaths.

But Whiting told Cook he had spoken to Whitmell since, and the British man did not wish to see Li go to prison.

Whiting said $5000 had to be paid immediately to the rental firm for insurance excess, leaving Li only $3000 from her family’s life savings.

Cook, who believed Li was remorseful, ordered the money paid before Friday, at which point Li will be given her passport back and allowed to return to China.

Otago Daily Times