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Image: Tina Tiller.
Image: Tina Tiller.

SocietyJanuary 23, 2024

Calls to ban driving on beaches are stuck in an eternal echo

Image: Tina Tiller.
Image: Tina Tiller.

On Sunday afternoon a person died after being thrown from, then crushed by, a flipping ute on West Auckland’s Muriwai Beach. Two others were injured and taken to hospital. Now there are calls to ban vehicle access to the beach – again.

If this all sounds familiar, that’s because it is. On the very same beach in 2015, four people died when they were thrown out of a Mitsubishi Pajero when it rolled. One day later, the New Zealand Herald published an article with the headline “Vehicle use on beaches questioned after fatal Muriwai crash”. In 2009, when a 12-year-old died in a crash on Ripiro Beach in Northland, driving on Muriwai was questioned again, in an article titled “Beach death sparks vehicle rethink“. At the time, Auckland Regional Council’s Jane Aickin said, It’s unfortunate the death happened, but it has been a catalyst.

After each fatal accident, councillors and community members call for changes to be made to limit vehicle access to the beaches. In turn, four-wheel-driving advocates suggest safety and driving courses, special licences and wearing seatbelts. And yet the four-wheel-drives keep rolling and people keep dying.

In New Zealand, if the public can get to a beach it’s classed as a road, but we’re not driving on most of them, because vehicles are banned. Still, people can drive on many beaches in Northland, Horowhenua, Ōpōtiki and Tauranga; they can drive on Muriwai and Karioitahi in Auckland if they take five minutes to fill out an online form; on the Kāpiti Coast they can drive on Ōtaki and Peka Peka, and in Southland there’s Oreti beach. Since beaches are roads, all the road rules apply, but enforcement on the sand is thin and some drivers hoon and take risks, or don’t understand the challenges of four-wheel-driving on sand. 

Yesterday, Muriwai Community Association co-chair Clare Bradley told RNZ’s Midday that, “As a community, we’re very close to a unanimous view that the beach should be closed to vehicles.” But in 2021, a series of community meetings over the future of vehicles on Muriwai Beach were described as “fiery”. The options being put forth by the council ranged from seasonal closures, restricting and controlled vehicle access with paid permits and gated entrances, and permanently closing the access points. It was reported that the majority of locals wanted access to remain open, with increased policing, but the council advised there weren’t sufficient resources for that. Minutes recorded at the third meeting at Muriwai Surf Club note “strong feedback from Waimauku and South Head Golf Club that permanent closure is not an option to be entertained”. Most of the feedback from members of the public is in favour of keeping the beach open to vehicles, with one saying, “people should be free to drive on the beach and live how they have always lived”.

The rāhui at Muriwai is due to end on January 25 (Photo: Kushal Permal via Unsplash)

It’s not just humans who are crushed by vehicles on beaches. Sand residents, aka shellfish, suffer, even when drivers adhere to all the road rules and manage their vehicle with expertise. There’s evidence that vehicle damage can kill toheroa, possibly by crushing juveniles near the surface and liquifying the sand so adults come to the surface and then are vulnerable to predation and being pulled away by the tide. It also affects young tuatua, who cannot burrow into sand compacted by traffic. At Oreti beach in Southland, juvenile toheroa were observed to be easily crushed by motorcycle tyres.

Any bird eggs laid in beach nests will also suffer, especially considering many of our native birds’ nests are extremely covert. Dotterel nests, for example, have sometimes been described as a “scrape”. One study in Kaikōura recreated dotterel nests with quail eggs, and found that 91% and 83% of them were destroyed in high and moderate traffic areas respectively. Dunes and plants are also ripped apart by tyres, and in turn animals like the Muriwai gecko lose their habitat. 

Despite the destructive effects of driving on Muriwai Beach, after the public meetings in 2021 it was decided that it wouldn’t be banned but instead “managed” and the needs of different beach-goers “balanced”. This summer, Auckland Council closed Muriwai to vehicles from December 29 to January 15 for public safety, ecological reasons, and fire risks. Six days after it reopened, someone died. The calls to ban access have started again, but if the ensuing changes (if any) only tinker at the edges of things, it won’t be the last time they echo.

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