Gisborne mum-to-be killed in crash with logging truck on wrong side of road – but no charges for offending driver

A Gisborne woman expecting her first child was killed in a crash with a logging truck that was driving on the wrong side of the road – but the driver will not face charges.

Erica Lynne Delany Jones, 26, died after her car collided with the fully laden truck on State Highway 35 near Gisborne on November 10 2018.

She was 19 weeks pregnant.

Coroner Donna Llewell released her findings into Jones’ death, determining that while charges were never laid against the truck driver, he was responsible for the crash.

The Coroner’s findings also reveal that Taufa Feki, known as Ray, also gave authorities incorrect information about his actions in the lead up to the crash.

Jones, a part-time project manager with the Ngāi Tāmanuhiri Tūtū Poroporo Trust, was on her way to kapa haka practice at Whāngārā Marae when she was killed.

She had been passionate about kapa haka since she was a child and the Coroner heard she “had been front row from six years of age”.

As Jones travelled on a downhill section of road Feki – a driver for Rewi Haulage Ltd – was heading uphill in the opposite direction.

Near the bottom of Tatapouri-Makorori Hill the two collided.

Jones suffered multiple injuries and died at the scene despite efforts of people to save her life – including a member of the public who gave CPR though the window of the mangled wreck.

Coroner Llewell reviewed extensive information about Jones, Feki and the crash including expert police analysis.

Ultimately she found that the main factor in the collision was that the logging truck was being driven in the wrong lane.

“Erica had no time or opportunity to take evasive action,” she said.

“On the basis of the evidence before me, Erica’s death was avoidable and no fault of her own.”

Coroner Llewell could not make a positive finding about why the truck was on the wrong side of the road but said crash and situational analysis pointed to “inattention, distraction or fatigue on the part of the truck driver”.

The inquest heard Feki passed a breath alcohol test at the scene and drug screening results – part of his employment obligations – were negative and normal.

Cellphone data showed no activity that would have interfered with his driving at the time of the collision.

Coroner Llewell said there were no witnesses to the collision and any CCTV footage of the area had been overwritten by the time police tracked it down.

Feki gave a statement that included a “swerve to avoid manoeuvre” inferring Jones was on the wrong side of the road – but it “did not correlate with physical evidence” gathered by police.

“Other information he had given to police about driving times, rest periods and his locations prior to the collision did not correlate with electronic and other data,” said the Coroner.

“There was no evidence to support any sudden steering movement or emergency braking by the truck driver to avoid the crash.

“As a consequence of these irregularities, more information was analysed and Mr Feki was re interviewed by police in the presence of his solicitor.

“Mr Feki admitted giving incorrect information about his start time and location of his load uplift, there were inconsistencies with logbook entries.”

A police crash analysis revealed Feki had started work at 1.30am after a break of under nine hours since his previous shift.

He had also worked the five days before the incident, about 60 hours.

Police said there were several “formal predictors” that inferred “fatigue was present”.

“It was a head-on crash, the road leading up to the area of impact was straight, the truck driver worked shift-work patterns… the driver did not have the requisite 10 hours break between shifts and contrary to (his) statement, there was no scene evidence to suggest emergency action was taken,” the Coroner heard.

She said Feki rejected the “dynamics” of the police analysis.

After the serious crash unit completed its investigation, the police file was reviewed by the Crown Solicitor’s office.

On the basis of its legal assessment – as is required under the Solicitor General’s prosecution guidelines – a decision was made not to charge Feki.

Coroner Llewell said her job was not to determine whether Feki was liable for the crash in any civil, criminal or disciplinary context.

But she did rule that based on the evidence he, and not Jones, was responsible for the collision.

“For the avoidance of doubt and supported by evidence, I find that there were no physical or other factors or Erica’s part that contributed to this collision,” said Coroner Llewell.

Who was Erica Jones?

Coroner Llewell heard that Jones was the youngest of four, with three older brothers.

She grew up on the East Coast and had moved home to work after a period living in Wellington.

“Erica had grown into a special young lady – she was described as a vivacious, selfless, talented and humble person who had much to offer her family, local community and iwi,” said the Coroner.

“Erica was starting a new chapter in her life, had entered the second trimester of her pregnancy and was very content with the prospect of motherhood.

“Erica was happily and healthily pregnant… she had known her partner for many years.”

She said while the early stages of the pregnancy had not been easy, overall Jones was an “adjusted, healthy, responsible and engaged mother-to-be”.

She was due to give birth in April 2019 and at the time of her death there were no concerns for her health and wellbeing.

Coroner Llewell said Jones had gained her licence at 15 and was known to her family as a “safe and responsible driver”.

“Erica was conscientious and proud of her vehicle… she would never text or use her phone while driving,” she said.

“Family members said Erica was known to tell them off for driving and texting at the same time.”

Cellphone data confirmed there was no activity that would have interfered with her driving the morning she died.

Coroner Llewell commended Jones’ family for their mana and integrity during the investigation and inquisitorial process.

“Despite the grief and pain of the loss of their beloved daughter, Erica’s mother indicated that at one stage the whānau wanted to meet the truck driver, in the spirit of peace and reconciliation,” she revealed.

“In my view, this was admirable given that for many months their grief was compounded by believing the collision was due to Erica having lost control of her vehicle and being on the wrong side of the road.”

That meeting has not happened.

Coroner Llewell hoped that the time would come for Feki and his employer to “find the compassion to acknowledge the Jones family and bring closure for everyone concerned”.

Family beg for improvement's to road, changes to trucking

The Jones family told the Coroner, and the Gisborne District Council in April 2019, that they wanted to see improvements to the East Coast Highway -including better road quality – to avoid similar tragedy in future.

They said the growth of the forestry sector in the area would only lead to an increase in heavy trucks using that stretch of road.

One whānau member said it was “well known” that trucks increase speed and “cut across the bend” in the area where Jones died.

The family also asked the Coroner to make recommendations including making it mandatory for all heavy trucks to have dash cameras operating “at all times”, the installation of a flashing sign to alert drivers to slow down on the fatal stretch and reducing speed in the vicinity.

The speed limit has since been reduced from 100km/h to 80km/h.

“The Jones whānau have been open and reasonable in providing their recommendations… so that something positive may come from Erica’s tragic passing,” said Coroner Llewell.

She said their suggestions were “commendable ideas” but most were “not directly linked to the factors the contributed to Erica’s death” and would do little to reduce the chances of death occurring in similar circumstances.

“The main causative factor in this collision was that the logging truck was being driven in the [wrong] lane possibly due to inattention, distraction or fatigue,” she said.

“It cannot be stressed enough that drivers of heavy vehicles must observe the regulatory requirements… and maintain optimal driving capability.”

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