Saturday 7 December 2019

Boxes of death: Why I don't want to use details of your horrific last minutes in a crash to convince others to slow down

Maggie Martin, Research Manager at the Road Safety Authority, spent over a year reviewing forensic fatal crash investigation files contained in ‘boxes of death’ at Garda headquarters. Here she tells us about the role that speed played in fatal crashes, the human cost and how she was deeply affected by the experience

The aftermath of a road traffic accident. Photo: Getty Images.
The aftermath of a road traffic accident. Photo: Getty Images.
Maggie Martin, Research Manager of the Road Safety Authority.

When you sit in a room full of boxes filled with files outlining a person's last few hours and minutes of their lives it can be overwhelming. I called these my boxes of death.

These people died in a violent and terrifying crash, something their families will have to live with forever.

You can switch off from the graphic content of what you are reading but you can't switch off your emotions and the empathy that they and their families deserve.

When we hear someone has died in a crash, we register it but I don't think we process exactly what that means.

In plain words, someone has died unnecessarily and traumatically due to either their or someone else's bad choice on that day. Behind each figure is a person who has died and a family left devastated.

These files made for bleak reading as they showed clearly how predictable and inevitable the outcome is when someone drives in a manner that puts themselves and other road users at risk.

Of the 867 crashes analysed, 32pc were due to excessive speed. In some cases these people have chosen to drive in a manner and with such excessive speed that it is unfathomable.

One fact rang out through them all. Personal choice.

In recent years we have moved from calling them accidents to collisions.

This is a reality, these are not accidents and in my mind they are not collisions. That word is too gentle. The reality is much harsher. They are crashes with all the trauma and fear that that should evoke.

When I read these files it became apparent that the only thing we can do is control our behaviour up to the point when a car loses control.

After this, you are at the point of no return and at the mercy of physics and biology.

Seventy percent of these cars lost control, the majority on a bend or trying to regain position after overtaking, hitting dips and travelling into the grass verge at speed.

When a car loses control it picks up its own speed, it spins faster and faster and faster, smashing through ditches and hedges, it can somersault into the air flipping over and over and over again.

It gouges out the earth, gouges the tar and in some cases ejects the occupants as it flips.

In this group of crashes, 30 drivers and 28 passengers were flung from the vehicle.

Something has to stop the momentum.

In these cases trees, stone pillars and walls, concrete post, telegraph poles. Sometimes they penetrate the vehicle and occupants or nearly cut the vehicle in two.

If it hits another vehicle, it becomes enmeshed in it and nearly disintegrates.

Six percent of drivers in speed related crashes were knowingly and willingly overtaking on continuous white lines, going around corners, pulling out to overtake even when other motorists flashed lights and blew horns to warn them not to.

In some cases they overtook multiple vehicles at a time, driving faster and faster to get in front. But they did not make it.

Instead, they smashed head-on into an innocent driver because on a narrow regional road there is nowhere to go. Other times they smashed into the vehicle travelling beside them in an attempt to get out of the way. The result is total carnage.

The Faster the Speed, the Bigger the Mess … it's not just an advertising tag line. It's reality.

The vast majority of the drivers responsible for the speed-related crashes, were young males; more than half were aged between 16 and 25 years of age. More than half of these crashes involved a single vehicle and these drivers killed 63 of their passengers.

Where the driver survived, they now live with the fact their behaviour probably led to the deaths of someone they knew or loved.

One-third had no insurance, one-in-ten were driving a defective vehicle and 7pc were disqualified. This displays a clear tendency for risk taking behaviour and disregard for authority. Some drivers had a history of road traffic offences, endorsements and disqualification. Some were even disqualified at the time of the fatal crash. These are repeat offenders.

Almost one-in-five of the drivers deemed responsible for the fatal crash were on a learner permit and at the very early stages of their driving career, some held their permit for less than six months.

These young men were inexperienced, but thought otherwise and chose to drive, in many cases unaccompanied and at excessive speed with devastating consequences.

Examining these files it is clear to me that there are some people using our roads who clearly treat excessive speed like a sport and show a blatant disregard for their own and others safety. This is backed up by the fact that they were on the road for social reasons (84pc) at the weekend, late at night and into the early hours.

Don't get me wrong, we are all capable of being that person, the culpable party who made the wrong decision on a given day.

More than half of the crashes occurred on our regional roads. Most people crash within a 30 kilometre radius of home. We live and travel these roads constantly, so know they have bends and dips and grass verges. We need to alter our speed to suit the road.

There were a group of people in these files who like most of us at some stage put themselves under pressure to be somewhere or simply became complacent about the speed on their local road regardless of the conditions.

Our recent attitudinal survey revealed that a third of us are willing to drive faster to make an appointment.

We all put pressure on ourselves to get to work, the children to school, make an appointment, and get home again after work. So what if you are late? The worst that will happen is a reprimand, but at least you will be alive or not have to live a life thinking you killed someone to get somewhere on time. For those who thought it was fun at the time, it's a high price to pay for a few minutes of glory.

I don't want people to live in fear each time they get behind the wheel. But I do need people to realise that every time they drive away from home, they may never come back due to their own or someone else's bad choices. We need to realise this reality and take it more seriously.

So before you press your foot harder on the accelerator, think about it.

Take a breath and slow down. I don't want to have to read about your last violent and horrific minutes of life in a future Box of Death to convince others to slow down.

Indo Motoring

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