National leader Simon Bridges' claim the Government has "cancelled" planned improvements to the country's roads is being called "absurd and irresponsible".
Eight people died in a head-on collision north of Taupō on Sunday. The tragic accident happened on a section of State Highway 1 without a median barrier.
"How about some serious improvements to roads?" Bridges asked on The AM Show on Monday morning. "They've cancelled them all. Whether it's Whangarei to Northport, whether it's further extensions to the Waikato Expressway, whether it's the Tauranga northern link, whether it's past Levin, there are billions of dollars they have stopped."
Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter angrily denied Bridges' claims.
"The number of deaths and serious injuries on our roads increased by about 55 percent between 2013 and 2018, that was under his watch," she told Newshub.
"Why are there not median barriers already on more roads? Because National cut funding for effective safety improvements to pour billions into urban fringe motorways in Auckland and Wellington.
"Over 10 years they spent $14 billion on five urban highway projects (another two have barely started construction). We have committed billions over the next three years to improving thousands of kilometres of dangerous rural roads with things that prevent deaths - like side and median barriers and wider shoulders."
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She called Bridges' claim "absurd and irresponsible", and each of Sunday's eight deaths a tragedy.
"We know it's going to take a sustained effort to turn the number of road deaths and injuries around. That's why this Government has invested a record $1.4 billion over three years to upgrade over 1500km of our most dangerous roads."
Speaking to Newshub Nation on Saturday, the day before the Taupō tragedy, Genter said teaching people to drive better was only part of the solution to New Zealand's shocking road toll.
"The majority of fatal crashes in New Zealand are the result of ordinary people making mistakes in a road environment that is unforgiving. That is why things like median barriers make such a difference. A median barrier can be the difference between someone being in a fatal head-on collision where multiple people die, or a car being written off, bouncing off the median. But people walk away from that."
New Zealand's road toll peaked in the mid-1980s at almost 800. It trended downwards from then, hitting a decades-low of 253 in 2013, before rising again to 378 last year.
In contrast, Sweden - which has twice the population - had about 100 fewer. Genter says it'll take time - Sweden started getting serious about its road toll in the 1990s.
"For decades, New Zealand accepted that road deaths were inevitable. It was just seen as part of getting around," she told Newshub Nation. "They have brought down deaths and serious injuries to substantially below where New Zealand is."
And median barriers will play a big part.
"Where we've put them in place... there hasn't been a fatal crash since those have gone in. We can afford to put them across our most dangerous highways right around the country."
About $1.4 billion is being invested over three years into the Government's Safe Roads and Roadsides programme, she says, including new median barriers, rumble strips and shoulder-widening.
At the time that plan was announced, National said it paled in comparison to its Roads of National Significance programme, which focused on building big, new highways to modern standards expected of motorists.