Coroner finds overgrown foliage obscured stop sign contributing to fatal two-person Dunedin crash

A coroner has found overgrown foliage obscuring a stop sign on a rural Dunedin road has contributed to a fatal two-person crash in 2019.  

Stephen MacNee, 57, and Jayde Cummings, 15, were both killed in the crash on September 17, 2019, at the intersection of Huntly Rd and Church Road West, in a rural area south of Outram. 

Cummings was a passenger in a ute, which the driver failed to stop at the intersection on Huntly Rd. The driver, 17, was on a restricted licence and collided with MacNee who died at the scene.  

Coroner Marcus Elliott released his report into the crash on Monday morning, which found the vehicle was travelling within the speed limit of 100km/h and there were no tyre marks consistent with braking or skidding.  

Due to this, Elliott concluded the teen driver was likely unaware he was coming to an intersection.  

Jayde Cummings was only 15-years-old when she died in the crash.
Jayde Cummings was only 15-years-old when she died in the crash. Photo credit: Givealittle

The coroner also found the left-hand Stop sign was "completely obscured" by foliage from the sight of an approaching driver up to a point approximately 120 metres away from the intersection. 

There was a second Stop sign, on the right-hand side of the road, but Elliott said if its purpose was to "enhance safety by creating a gating effect, this purpose was undermined by the fact that the left-hand sign was obscured and the two signs were not aligned".

"Based on the evidence presented at the inquest, I conclude that the nature of Church Road West (long and straight) and the environmental features (tall trees, shrubs, hedges, fences, power poles and paddocks creating a corridor-like effect), together with the reduced visibility of oncoming traffic on Huntly Road, were such that it may not have been obvious that a driver was approaching an intersection, especially when travelling at a speed of up to 100 km/hr," Elliott wrote in the report.  

Elliott added Dunedin City Council could not absolve itself of its legal responsibility as Road Controlling Authority but found it did take "action to meet that responsibility" by hiring Downer to address safety risks, such as foliage obscuring stop signs. 

The coroner slammed Downer for their inaction in bringing the foliage to the council's attention.  

"The presence of foliage in front of a Stop sign was clearly a safety issue which caused imminent danger. Downer failed to identify it and bring it to the Council’s attention so that it could be addressed," Elliott said.  

Downer submitted to the coroner there had been a joint inspection of the crash site with a Council officer on May 23, 2019, which meant the Council also contributed to the crash.  

But Elliott noted Downer was required to undertake fortnightly inspections, including two weeks before the crash, "at which time the sign must have been obscured".  

"By failing to do (sic) identify the presence of the foliage and informing the Council, Downer’s inaction contributed to the crash and to the deaths of Jayde Cummings and Stephen Macnee," the coroner said. 

The crash

At about 5pm on September 17, 2019, Cummings's mother, Lisa Park, said she was sitting in the lounge when her daughter told her she was going out for a drive.  

Park reminded Cummings to not go on the motorway before saying a friendly farewell - "later" - and walked out the front door, and then into a Mitsubishi ute driven by a 17-year-old driver. 

The vehicle was next spotted on a CCTV camera at 5:17pm travelling through the Outram township. Not long after, the Ute and the Commodore collided.  

Cummings died at the scene while MacNee was alive in his vehicle when he was found but died shortly after. The driver of the Ute sustained serious injuries and was taken to hospital.  

The teenage driver later admitted charges of careless driving causing death when he appeared in the Youth Court. The driver had no memory of the crash. 

'Struggle to go forward'

Following the death of his 15-year-old daughter, Mark Cummings' life started falling apart around him.  

Mark spent time in prison, lost his marriage, suffered a head injury and his mental and physical health deteriorated as legal bills piled up around him.  

"It is a struggle to go forward," Mark told Stuff.  

All he wanted was an apology from Dunedin City Council and Downer but that didn't happen until the end of the coronial hearing, which was almost four years after the crash. 

During those four years, in March 2021, Mark got a cricket bat and smashed up part of a lawyer's office and a council building after learning the teen driver behind the crash was discharged and had his criminal record wiped, according to Stuff. 

This saw Cummings spend six months on remand.  

''I was so angry and mad it was probably the best thing for me... but that's with hindsight,'' he told Stuff.  

'Tragedy' - Dunedin City Council  

Following the release of the coroner's report on Monday, Dunedin City Council chief executive Sandy Graham said the 2019 crash was a "tragedy".  

"What occurred in 2019 was a tragedy for all concerned and we once again express our sympathy to the families of Jayde Cummings and Steve MacNee," Graham said in a statement.  

"While the coroner has found no fault with the Dunedin City Council and has acknowledged the steps we have already taken since the crash to improve rural intersection safety, that does not take away from the loss experienced by both families."  

Graham said coronial inquests are about working out whether anything can be done differently so that similar deaths can be prevented in future.  

"In this case, the coroner has concluded our actions did not contribute to the crash and has made no recommendations relating to the DCC in their findings," Graham said.  

"The coroner acknowledges our work to improve rural intersection safety, including at the Church Rd West/Huntley Rd intersection, since 2019. This work is ongoing."