New Zealand's first fatal car accident

8 September 1906

Dory de Dion motor car (Christchurch City Libaries, CCL PhotoCD 6, IMG0009)

Janet Meikle became the first person in New Zealand to be killed in an accident caused directly by a car when her 8-hp De Dion Bouton – the most common model in the colony at the time – went over a bank on the family farm, Table Downs, in the Washdyke Valley about 5 km from Timaru. The colony’s first two cars had been imported by Wellington businessman William McLean just eight years earlier.

Meikle lost control while negotiating a steep, narrow, muddy descent. The car scraped along a fence before overturning into a ploughed paddock, pinning her beneath it. Her husband John suffered a fractured thigh and could do nothing to help her as she suffocated. This sort of accident was common in the early decades of motoring. While cars were slow by today’s standards, they had few safety features and their occupants were likely to be thrown out in a collision.

The South Canterbury Automobile Club expressed its regret and sympathy and asked that its members attend the funeral three days later – ‘without Cars’. The couple had a four-year-old daughter. Janet Meikle was an ‘expert’ and ‘particularly cool’ driver with several years’ experience behind the wheel. Many rural women drove cars in the early decades of the 20th century, as they were the ones who went into town for supplies while their husbands worked long hours on the land.

New Zealand’s first motorcycle fatality had occurred in Dunedin the previous year, when Alfred Price was killed by a train after falling from his machine. There were no witnesses to the late-night accident and it was unclear whether there had been a collision.

The arrival of mass-produced Model T Fords in 1909 made motoring more affordable, and by 1921 there were 69 deaths on New Zealand roads. The worst year has been 1973, with 843 deaths. Thanks to modern safety features, the road toll has not exceeded 400 since 2007 despite many more vehicles being on the roads.

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