Buckle Up

We are coming to a grinding halt

By Elia Petzierides

With their 1970 song Roadhouse Blues, The Doors instructed you to “Keep your eyes on the road and your hands upon the wheel”. Forty-five years later and this is still salient advice. Driving is one of those tasks we perform so regularly that we can easily forget the importance of seemingly minor details, like keeping your eyes on the road. This Grave Lesson provides us all with a tragic reminder of grand proportions.

What happened?

It was four days before Christmas 2011 in Eastern Creek, New South Wales, Australia. A Toyota Prado four-wheel drive was travelling 20-30 km/hr above the 70 km/hr speed limit on a four-lane road with a breakdown lane. The four-wheel drive was travelling in lane one (far left), its four female occupants representing three generations of the same family. They were driving home after a dinner out celebrating the 28th birthday of the driver and mother of five, Hana Tahan. In the front passenger seat was Imtissal Alahmad, the 57-year-old mother of Ms Tahan. In the back seat were Ms Tahan’s two-year-old daughter Layal Tahan and her four-year-old daughter (name undisclosed for legal reasons). Layal was seated in a child-restraint seat with an in-built harness.

A few hundred meters ahead of the four-wheel drive there was a street sweeper travelling at low speed, half in the breakdown down lane and half in lane one. Between the four-wheel drive and the street sweeper there was a safety vehicle illuminated with orange safety signs, trailing about 80 meters behind the street sweeper. There were no issues with visibility and the weather was fine.

In lane two, adjacent and to the right of the four-wheel drive, was another vehicle travelling at approximately the same speed. Both vehicles were rapidly approaching the illuminated safety vehicle. In an attempt to avoid the safety vehicle and unaware of the vehicle to her right, Ms Tahan indicated and moved right (without checking her right mirror or blind spot) and the two adjacent vehicles collided. Having lost control just past the safety vehicle, the four-wheel drive then crashed into the back of the slow-moving street sweeper, killing both Mrs Alahmad in the front seat and Layal in the back. Ms Tahan was badly injured and her four-year-old daughter was severely and permanently injured.

So tragic was the outcome of this crash, the Coroner described it as an “immeasurable tragedy” and stated that the family’s obvious distress and grief touched all involved in the inquest.

What went wrong?

Firstly, it is important to note that the driver, Ms Tahan, had a clear driving record, without any prior fines or convictions. Additionally, she was in good health, was emotionally stable and was not intoxicated or under the influence of alcohol or any other drugs.

Unfortunately, neither driver was able to provide a clear recollection of the moments leading up to the crash. Some witnesses were of the opinion that the four-wheel drive and the adjacent car were racing each other. The Coroner conceded that for vehicles to be exceeding the speed limit on a good well-lit road at night without much traffic was unfortunately not unusual; however, speeding and racing were two very different things. Weighing up the evidence, the Coroner concluded that it was “highly unlikely” the vehicles were racing.

Citing large-scale research from The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, which found that in 80 percent of crashes and 65 percent of near misses drivers were not paying attention for up to three seconds before the incident occurred, the Coroner concluded that inattention of both drivers was the most likely cause of the crash. It was this inattention, coupled with the coincidence of both vehicles travelling alongside each other, at the same speed, at the same time the street sweeper was in close proximity, and the failure of Ms Tahan to look right prior to moving right, that produced the catastrophic outcome.

The Coroner quoted comments made by the New South Wales (NSW) Commissioner of Police, Mr Andrew Scipione, in the preface to the NSW Police Safe Driving Policy: “The police motor vehicle, if used irresponsibly and inappropriately, can result in it being the most deadly weapon in the police arsenal…” The Coroner asserted that Mr Scipione’s observation applied equally as well to civilian vehicles as it did to police vehicles. Acknowledging that most minor errors of judgement that every driver has made at some point do not result in any harm or damage, the Coroner described it as “terribly tragic that such a small mistake has such grave consequences”.

Sadly, there is more.

Two-year-old Layal, who died in the back seat, was sitting in a forward-facing child restraint seat with an in-built harness. This seat was designed to be tethered at the top and bottom. However, in this case only the bottom tether was fastened, causing the top of the chair to pitch forward (pivoting from the anchored base) resulting in fatal head injuries when Layal’s head struck the vehicle’s internal structures. Additionally, the shoulder straps for the child-restraint seat were incorrectly adjusted for Layal. It was concluded that Layal “might” have survived had she been restrained in the manner mandated by Australian Road Rules.

Will it happen again?

With regard to the child-restraint seat, the Coroner commended a NSW campaign concerning child-restraint seats called “They’re counting on you“, which reminds parents of the importance of having the right seat appropriately installed and fitted for their children. Similar programs have been implemented across Australia and other parts of the world.

A road safety engineer with a passionate interest in road safety for children provided an expert report for the Coroner and made a suggestion that the Coroner forwarded to the Roads and Maritime Services. The suggestion involved the implementation of a mechanism on child restraint seats that would alert users when the child restraint device is not properly fitted. As the Coroner felt he was unable to assess the relative merits of this suggestion, it was passed on as a suggestion rather than a formal recommendation.

Notably absent from the Coroner’s notes and recommendations was any linking of the fact that both vehicles were exceeding the speed limit (by 20-30 km/hr) to the significant contribution this must have played in the cause of this catastrophe. It is the author’s opinion that this is puzzling when one considers:
• A. The negative effect speed has on a driver’s ability to appropriately respond to unexpected hazards on the road to avoid a crash.
• B. The effect speed has on making the consequences of a crash gravely worse.
• C. The substantial public education campaign being run in Australia on the risks associated with speeding.

The Coroner concluded the Inquest by providing the following four pertinent statements to remind drivers of the dangers of inattention:
• 1. “That distraction and lack of situational awareness on the roads can be a killer.”
• 2. “That dangers can arise very quickly on the roads.”
• 3. “That these events can happen to anybody – we should never be complacent.”
• 4. “That small mistakes can have catastrophically disproportionate consequences.”

Just in case you were distracted while reading the Coroner’s statements above, let your eyes roll over them once more. It might just make the difference between a near miss and the life-changing grinding halt of a fatal crash.

The author Elia Petzierides is a Victorian based Advanced Life Support Paramedic, a Paramedic Driving Standard Facilitator and a Registered Nurse with a Graduate Diploma in Advanced Clinical Nursing.

With thanks to Jess Redman for editing.

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