Changing the Hunter's bad driving habits

RETIRED ambulance officer Wayne Eshman was in his car on the side of the road at Warners Bay this week, talking on the phone about how Newcastle and Central Coast drivers are the most aggressive he’s come across in the world.

Then he paused. He was sitting in a quiet back street.

‘‘Here comes a hoon right now. You’ll be able to hear him,’’ he said.

Down the phone came a ‘‘Vrooom’’ which peaked, and faded away. The speed was much quicker than the 60km/h limit.

‘‘Of course. Green P plates,’’ he said.

Eshman had spent the day at the Roads and Maritime Services driver training centre at Adamstown where Newcastle Rotary has been hosting the Rotary Young Driver Awareness (RYDA) program for students from four Newcastle high schools.

Now a driving instructor, Eshman demonstrated the mathematics of safe driving to Newcastle High School students.

‘‘It takes three-quarters of a second for your brain to recognise a hazard ahead. If you’re doing 60km/h, it means you’ve travelled 25metres while you’re thinking about putting your foot on the brake. That’s the holy crap moment,’’ he said, while walking students 25metres along a bitumen strip.

‘‘It takes another 15metres after the holy crap moment for you to pull up.’’

He talked about the recommended three-second gap between cars which gives drivers time to respond to any ‘‘holy crap moments’’.

‘‘Most Newcastle drivers won’t have a three-second gap. They’ll have a Bali gap which is about a foot. They’ll be right on your clacker.’’

Then he talked about the most brutal statistic for the year 11 students – most aged 16 and on their learner plates.

‘‘Two out of three red P-plate drivers will crash in the first six months of having their licence,’’ he said.

Only one student in one of the Newcastle High groups on Monday had his driver’s licence, gained in March. He had already had a crash – not serious, but his fault – and been fined for it.

Eshman teaches teenagers but his message, after 28 years of driving ambulances and teaching ambulance officers how to drive safely under pressure, is for all Hunter and Central Coast drivers.

‘‘Having worked as an ambulance officer in the Hunter, Central Coast and Sydney, and having driven cars in different parts of the world, I can say that Newcastle and Central Coast drivers are the most aggressive I’ve come across, and they’re teaching their kids how to drive.

‘‘It’s less stressful to drive in Sydney. Drivers there are used to crappy traffic so they’re more tolerant. You can make a mistake in Sydney and get away with it without harassment, but here?

‘‘As soon as people see a blinker on they’ll speed up to close the gap and stop you. They’ve got to get there first, and some of them are parents who should be good role models. I don’t know if it’s genetic, or because of people’s occupations, but it’s frustrating. I can’t work it out, quite frankly.’’

THERE is some factual backing for Eshman’s views.

In April a Newcastle Herald investigation of Office of State Revenue figures found drivers from Newcastle’s inner-city suburbs were officially the worst in the Hunter in terms of the most speeding and red light camera fines per head in 2010. Newcastle West, the CBD, The Hill, Bar Beach and Cooks Hill recorded the highest offences.

More than 880 motorists per week, or more than 46,000 per year across the Hunter Region, were caught by police and fixed speed and red light cameras in 2010. They paid $9.2million in fines.

Northern region traffic co-ordinator Senior Sergeant Justin Cornes said the high number was ‘‘a bit of a mystery’’ because ‘‘drivers should be aware cameras are there’’.

‘‘They are not hidden, there is plenty of warning,’’ he said.

The figures prompted Holdings Driver Training owner Scott Holding to describe Newcastle drivers as extremely aggressive and ‘‘the worst in Australia’’.

In May an NRMA survey of 1500 NSW drivers from the Hunter, Parramatta, the ACT and Dubbo found Hunter drivers were some of the state’s most frustrated and least considerate.

Almost half of Hunter motorists reported being verbally abused – almost 10per cent above the survey average.

The region had the highest number of motorists annoyed by slow drivers in the right-hand lane (45per cent), being denied a chance to merge (47per cent) and being cut off (57per cent).

NRMA Hunter regional director Kyle Loades said the figures potentially made the roads more dangerous due to added pressure on drivers.

There were 14 fatalities in the Hunter Valley police command area in 2011, compared to the three-year average of eight. In Port Stephens there were 11 deaths, compared to the three-year average of five. Men accounted for 72per cent of Hunter road deaths in 2011.

University of NSW Professor Mike Regan is an experimental psychologist who specialises in road safety and road user behaviour. He is the author of more than 200 published documents and research papers, including the first book on driver distraction.

There was some truth in the adage that people drive the way they live, he said.

‘‘If you’re living in an area where the socio-economic demographic is a little lower than other areas, or there’s a lower education level or a greater level of unemployment among younger groups in particular, people can take out some of their frustrations in cars.

‘‘Often general driving behaviour can be linked to the general health of the community.’’

Gender was clearly an issue in driver behaviour, he said.

‘‘The people who engage in road rage are the angry young men.’’

There was an increasing incidence of young women speeding, although ‘‘in women it’s not necessarily aggressive behaviour’’.

Studies had found teaching younger drivers, and particularly young men, advanced or defensive driver skills could lead to poor outcomes.

‘‘Those types of programs will put you into trouble to teach you how to get out of trouble,’’ Regan said.

‘‘But research has shown that sort of training can encourage young people to try it in the road domain. It can promote an over-confidence in their skills.’’

Although hazard awareness in drivers develops with experience, research had shown young drivers benefited most from programs that focused on risk assessment and distributing attention.

‘‘Young people will be shown film of a car approaching an intersection with a car coming from left or right. The film is frozen and they’re asked to nominate the key risks,’’ Regan said.

In a film shown to Newcastle High students on Monday, too much attention paid to an approaching car making an illegal right-hand turn left students surprised by a child’s sudden appearance on a pedestrian crossing.

‘‘The problem with learning to drive is that it can take hundreds of hours of driving for young people to experience some of the range of hazards that can occur,’’ he said.

Regan agreed with Eshman about the significance of parental driving attitudes.

‘‘There’s some research that drivers will pick up the traits, attitudes and behaviour displayed by supervisors,’’ he said.

‘‘If you have parents who drive in a particular way, it’s a no-brainer that will pass on to the kids, but when young kids get into a car with their peers, that will have even more of an impact.’’

Regan joked that one of the best driving initiatives could involve retirees and young drivers.

‘‘There is evidence that young people who convey elderly people drive more safely,’’ he said.

NEWCASTLE Rotary launched the RYDA program in Newcastle several years ago.

Rotarian Ted Lewis said the idea was to provide driver education to all students in the 16- and 17-year age group, and not just drivers, to help them change peer behaviour about driving.

Newcastle command youth liaison officer Senior Constable Darren Fleming ran sessions this week that included the film Remembering Genevieve, about a bright student and army cadet who died in a crash in 2009 with her best friend.

The crash occurred when Genevieve, who was on P-plates, overtook a car on a familiar road, overcorrected, clipped a utility and drove the car into the path of a four-wheel-drive.

‘‘They’re dead. They’re not coming back,’’ Fleming said.

‘‘It was inexperience. That was all.’’

Fleming talked about the ‘‘ripple effect’’ of car crashes, and the need for drivers to eliminate risk, minimise distractions and anticipate hazards.

‘‘As soon as you get your red Ps, you think you’re a shit-hot driver, but it’s a very dangerous time. Those first few weeks of driving are when you’re at the highest risk of having a crash in your life.’’

Outside the session, Fleming was not surprised to hear that one of the students spent the duration of the session fixated on his mobile phone.

To students, he stressed the need to look beyond the car ahead, and maintain a reasonable attitude while driving.

‘‘The one thing you can control is your attitude,’’ he said.

‘‘When someone does something stupid on the road and I feel like responding, I think ‘If that was my mum or grandmother, would I get out and yell at them?’’’

Steve Northey, who runs Ride-It-Right programs at Adamstown for the Roads and Maritime Services, also stressed the importance of attitude and responsibility while on the road.

‘‘People should get out of the habit of trying to assign blame when things happen on the road,’’ he said.

‘‘We’re human. People make mistakes. A lot of the time if we collide with someone, we share a partial contribution. Sometimes if people are not going to give way, we’ve got to give in.’’

There was no mobile phone texting, laughing or whispering when Tim Grant, 27, and Shaun Kulupach, 27, told how car crashes had left them with brain injuries that changed their lives.

Grant was on his way to church at Maitland in February 2006 when his car aquaplaned and crashed with a truck.

He has no memory of the first five months after the crash.

‘‘I was 21, in the prime of my life. At first I was in a wheelchair. Learning to walk again was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do,’’ he said.

Kulupach was 16 and in year 11 when he rode a motorcycle with friends at Minmi.

He had been drinking beer. He wasn’t wearing a helmet and was riding at more than 100km/h when there was a crash and he ‘‘connected with a concrete pipe’’.

He should have died that night, and technically did die three times.

Several students were in tears as Kulupach said ‘‘I didn’t know what my own name was. I didn’t know who my parents were. I didn’t know who my friends were.

‘‘I’m blind in my right eye, I have no feeling in my right hand and I’ve lost the sense of feeling in my right leg. I can’t smell and I can barely taste things.’’

There was intense therapy.

‘‘My mum took me to the gym three times a week, and my father stopped work for a year and a half to help look after me.’’

Asked what he missed most, the former singer/guitarist said he missed being able to play the guitar, and he missed the friends he had not seen for many years.

Outside the sessions, Kulupach said he hoped the 16-year-olds in the room would see themselves in his account, and the consequences of making mistakes.

Newcastle High student Angelica Binos is 16. After the RYDA session on Monday her mother was taking her for her learner’s test. Listening to Grant and Kulupach had made her ‘‘really emotional’’.

‘‘To hear stories like that, how it happened, and the effect it has had on their lives was really upsetting,’’ she said.

It had made her more nervous, but in a good way.

‘‘I think it’s made me more cautious,’’ she said.

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