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The remote chance of an accident

Wednesday, December 17, 2014 by Chris Hocking

I’ve always considered myself to be fairly safety conscious, but a recent accident scene I witnessed has changed my approach to long-distance driving.

Last month, I was visiting a customer based in a mine in one of the most remote parts of Australia, when we happened upon a serious single-vehicle accident. Three of us had set out in the hire car from Alice Springs. 

Given I wasn’t confident with the conditions, I chose to drive the first leg of the journey which was about 2-3 hours on sealed roads. My other two passengers shared the balance of the trip as they were more experienced driving on unsealed roads and one had previously driven this particular road and therefore knew the last leg was the worst.

Not long after our third driver had taken over the wheel, we came across a dual cab utility vehicle carrying three passengers that had rolled only minutes earlier. Immediately, we stopped to assist. We found the driver walking dazed around the scene, one passenger had crawled through a window and was lying face down and the third passenger was still belted into the back seat. Both passengers had serious lacerations and broken bones.

Remote accident

After assessing their condition, two of our team started first aid. Simultaneously, I used the satellite phone to alert their employer of the incident. From the satellite phone I was able to supply GPS coordinates so they could send medical assistance as soon as possible. Given the location, it was determined the better option was to ask assistance from the ambulance service located within the local indigenous community as they were much closer to the accident scene, but still almost three hours away.

While we were waiting for the ambulance and police to arrive, we made some shelter and hydrated the injured men, but most importantly, we kept them calm and reassured.

The lessons learned

My job is to support customers using our early-warning drowsiness detection products, so I am acutely aware of the risks of fatigue. 

Prior to this trip we had considered the distance and the conditions and had made decisions about the time of day and the length of time each driver would be at the wheel. Of course, we also used Optalert’s early-warning drowsiness detection while driving. Due to the remote location of the roads, we had also taken water, spare fuel, first aid and a satellite phone as a precautionary measure. 

But I had not considered we would come across an accident. And, I never thought I would need to access GPS coordinates to save someone’s life.  

Why does driving make us tired?

In the weeks since the accident, I have thought a lot about the cause. Was it fatigue, or drowsiness, lack of experience, or speed? 

After making the return trip, I have surmised the cause to be reduced alertness in the driver. The heavily corrugated but straight road acts as a kind of hypnosis. Like sitting in a massage chair, your body starts to relax. You’re barely turning the wheel and before long you have moved into the dangerous state of drowsiness. The vehicle rollover was the result of an over correction when the car had veered from left to right and then back to a sharp left. The vehicle rolled possibly four to five times across a distance of 90 to 100 meters. 

Fortunately for the men and their families, all three had their safety belts on. If not, the scene might have been completely different. 

Staying alert on a long-distance drive

My teenage daughters are both in their first year of driving which causes me great concern. It’s also the time of year when we all travel long distances to visit friends and take holidays. Every time they take a trip I reinforce the message of swapping drivers, ensuring they are feeling fresh and hydrated, and to make sure they take a rest even if they only feel the slightest bit drowsy.

Even though I consider them to be sensible, they are inexperienced drivers and being young, they tend to think they are bullet proof. Of course none of us are bullet proof, and we could all learn from this experience.

Please take care whenever you are on the road, and if you are travelling long distances, do make adequate preparations and encourage others to do the same. Any life lost on the road is a horrible and tragic waste.


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