Survive the Drive: Why the Hunter is a 'library' of road trauma as tragic toll keeps climbing

The Hunter's road trauma remains - even after the twisted wreckage has been cleared.
The Hunter's road trauma remains - even after the twisted wreckage has been cleared.

THE memories just keep flooding back every time Dungog paramedic Paul Alexander passes the scene of a fatal crash.

The twisted wreckage has been cleared, the emergency services left long ago, but there are still the haunting clues that hint at the tragedy that came before.

“You can still see the memorials on the side of the road, the police markings, the paint that came from the cars,” Mr Alexander said.

TRAGEDY: The Hunter has not seen significant reduction in the road toll since 2014.

TRAGEDY: The Hunter has not seen significant reduction in the road toll since 2014.

“And every time we drive past these areas, and there are multiple places in Newcastle, it’s like visiting a library. You relive those events and you think about the families involved. You wonder how those families are going now, whether they’re OK.

“That’s probably one of the hardest things.”

The paramedic of 21 years opened up to the Newcastle Herald about his experiences as a first responder to road trauma as part of Australian Community Media’s Survive the Drive campaign, which aims to spread the road safety message ahead of the holiday season.

Mr Alexander said most fatal accidents on Hunter roads could be attributed to speeding, drugs and alcohol, fatigue, poor maintenance of vehicles, inexperience, not driving to the road conditions and in-car distractions.

“I have only ever attended one motor vehicle accident accident in my career, but I have been to thousands of motor vehicle crashes – and that is the difference,” he said. 

“Time after time we go to crashes and think, ‘This person did not have to die today’. We know another choice, or possibility, existed.

ON THE FRONT LINE: "You think about the families involved" ... Dungog paramedic Paul Alexander has responded to thousands of crashes in the Hunter.

ON THE FRONT LINE: "You think about the families involved" ... Dungog paramedic Paul Alexander has responded to thousands of crashes in the Hunter.

“There is certainly something about watching a 17-year-old boy die in front of you, despite the best efforts of paramedics. That will live forever in my memory.

“It’s something that will never go away. 

“There are people who are completely innocent on our roads, but they pay the ultimate price.”

Mr Alexander contended it was the hardest job of any emergency services worker to inform loved ones of a tragedy. “It’s not the traumatic injuries; it’s not the blood that has the long-lasting effects,” he said. “What takes its toll is dealing with other people’s emotions.”

Tragic road toll keeps climbing, stats show

THE Hunter has not seen significant improvements in its annual road toll in three years, according to new statistics which paint a tragic picture of broken lives and trauma that authorities are desperate to reverse.

The figures, released to the Herald by the NSW Centre for Road Safety, show the number of fatalities on the region’s roads officially stands at 68.

However, this is expected to rise by one after a woman died on the Pacific Motorway at Cams Wharf on Saturday.

It brings the road toll worryingly close to matching the 2016 total of 72, which was higher than the 2015 total of 59.

SAFETY FIRST: An Australian Community Media campaign.

SAFETY FIRST: An Australian Community Media campaign.

The Hunter has not seen a downward trend in its yearly road toll since the low ebb in 2014 when 43 deaths were recorded.

The figures also show the most fatalities occurred on the Hunter’s country roads, with 52 deaths this year – up slightly on last year’s total of 47. Further, country roads are historically where the most injuries have occurred, with an average of 830 road users seriously injured outside the Newcastle metropolitan area every year.

Nearly half of all men and women killed on Hunter roads were aged between 17 and 39 years old, the figures show.

Male fatalities outnumbered females by almost four to one.

And almost half of all fatalities and almost a third of all serious injuries on Hunter roads were speed-related.

Between 2012 and 2016, nearly a fifth of all fatalities on the region’s roads were fatigue-related, while this year’s official figure of alcohol-related deaths stands at eight, though this is expected to rise after the processing of blood alcohol readings.

Ahead of expected rainfall this week, NSW Police Traffic and Highway commander Assistant Commissioner Michael Corboy urged motorists to take care on the region’s roads.

“Road users should drive, ride, cycle, and walk to the conditions, which in many parts of NSW is currently experiencing significant rain and wind conditions,” he said. 

“The best tip I can offer is for people to slow down. When you slow down it increases your braking distance and time to react to dangers on the road. 

“In areas where there is serious rainfall, we urge drivers to pull over where safe to do so and wait for the weather to pass before continuing their journey. 

“In heavy weather, visibility can be poor, so it is important for cyclists, pedestrians and motorcyclists to wear bright and reflective clothing. 

“Do not cross flooded waters under any circumstances, it’s not worth the risk. We have already lost 351 lives this year.”

Safety push to target regions

THE spotlight is squarely on country roads with the launch of the state’s first educational campaign aimed at regional areas.

The campaign, Saving Lives on Country Roads, launched in Queanbeyan on Monday, in response to harrowing statistics that point to the disproportionate number of deaths on country roads than those in metropolitan areas.

Roads Minister Melinda Pavey said 252 people were killed on regional roads last year.

“That’s one third of our population making up two thirds of our road toll,” she said. “They aren’t just numbers they’re our friends, families, colleagues, we all have too many stories of people lost – please be safe, no excuses.” 

Ms Pavey said the emotive campaign would detail the experience of victims of road trauma through their own stories.

The campaign will be launched in the lead-up to the holiday period and would “encourage country people to stop making excuses for risky behaviour on their local roads”.