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Commissioner Michael O’Connell’s address at the Road Trauma event

Michael O'ConnellCommissioner Michael O’Connell , Road Trauma Event – Millicent November 15th-17th

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Michael O’Connell Commissioner for Victims’ Rights attended the recent Road Trauma weekend held in Millicent,  and provided 5 THE FM with the speech he prepared for this event for publication on http://www.wattlerangenow.com

“It is with regret that I stand before you tonight – remembrance days as happening this weekend are sad days. Among you are faces of the bereaved, the injured and families and friends affected by road crashes, as well as others.

We are here to remember – as we should – but also to highlight our desire that fewer and fewer road users and their families and friends suffer as too many have.

Each August for the last six years I lecture on Victimology and victim assistance as guest faculty for Tokiwa University’s International Victimology Institute, Japan. During that time I have met several professors conducting research on victims, including a professor who surveyed victims and co-victims of road crashes.

Victims who answered one of his surveys said they experienced a number of ‘troubles’ after the crash. These troubles included: mental shock, physical pain or disorder, increased burden of house keeping or child care; and, the burden of negotiation with wrong-doers or civil suit either for them or against them.

These victims expected family, lawyers (criminal and civil), medical staff, friends and acquaintances, and the police to help them – however, these people did not always do so.

These victims expected to be provided: reparation for injury; actual and factual information about the crash; financial assistance; guidance on court procedures; and, emotional support.

Self-help was also important to them; as was help by family. Furthermore, they expected government and non-government services would be available when they needed it or them.

My experiences as a police officer, as a driver who crashed a car injuring his wife, as the son of a driver who was involved in a crash that killed a child and as the Commissioner for Victims’ Rights, convince me that many victims of road crashes in our State would answer a survey in similar ways to those in Japan.

Clearly, road crashes are not unique to our State, or our country. Alas, road traffic injuries are the leading cause of death by injury worldwide and the tenth leading cause of all deaths.

Despite the marked decline in the number of people killed on our roads, the number remains too high. Of particular concern is the number of young people who die or are seriously injured.

I mention these statistics with some hesitation. Almost every day I hear something about road crashes, especially fatal crashes, on our roads – sometimes the monthly or yearly comparisons appear like a score board on television screens and in newspapers. The truth, as many of you know, is that each ‘score’ is the death of a loved one and the mark of a human tragedy that is never forgotten.

As well thousands are injured in road crashes. It is said that for every person who dies on our roads another eleven are injured so badly they need hospital treatment.

As police, ambulance officers, country fire service volunteers, emergency service volunteers, medical practitioners and others in emergency departments at hospitals well know, there is virtually no limit to the nature and extent of injuries that might be sustained in a crash. These people can become victims of vicarious trauma or compassion fatigue.

The victims also include the drivers of vehicles who are not physically injured but are haunted by the memory of mangled wrecks and battered people.

Road crashes traumatise many hundreds of thousands more. I deliberately say traumatise because trauma literally means “a powerful shock that may have long-lasting effects”. There is no escaping that road crashes resulting in sudden death or unexpected injury are certainly powerful shocks. It would be unusual for a person to have the opportunity to psychologically prepare for what follows a crash.

Despite public campaigns focusing on road safety in general and road crashes in particular, my experiences suggest few people are prepared to cope with road trauma. The emotional and psychological burden can cause serious illness, dramatic (even permanent) decline in quality of life and, in some cases, premature death.

Understandably coping is not easy. Coping does not mean forgetting the death of a loved one, for instance. It does not mean being pain-free. It does not mean treatment has stopped, or that the memories are no longer there.

Coping does, however, mean coming to grips with what happened and its consequences. It does mean feeling hopeful about one’s future. It does mean making positive achievements within one’s limitations.

Yet for some, coping is that ‘impossible dream’. Instead, they feel they are living a nightmare that appears to be never-ending.

The devastating effects of road trauma can be exacerbated, as the aforementioned Japanese research shows, by the ambivalence – perhaps some might say failures – of others, including those who work in institutions such as the criminal justice system. As one judge retorted in reply to a question about the law, ‘you just don’t get it, Michael. The law is not intended to be compassionate.’ Indeed it has proven, I say, to be a blunt instrument in dealing with tragedy. Its objectivity seems immune to the realities, to the emotions, to the human toll, which we will remember and acknowledge this weekend.

I hasten to add this does not mean judges and magistrates are not compassionate people; indeed, I have seen some of them struggle to reconcile their moral beliefs with the law, which is their lot.

Victims of road crashes and their families have not always been afforded the same rights as crime victims – not all road crashes lead to a criminal investigation and or prosecution – but when crashes do, the disregard for victims’ rights results in dissatisfaction, frustration, even anger.

I mentioned that victims of road crashes in our State would give similar responses to the Japanese victims. A cursory review of my dealings with victims of road crashes in our State reveals victims who say they want more information about and greater recognition of their rights. They also want practical help dealing with our compulsory third party insurance scheme, which is likely to become more necessary as victims and their families grapple with recent changes to that scheme.

Victims and families, plus friends, also want information about support organisations and some expect active referral. Among the best ways to reduce the harm caused by road crashes is to have an effective and accessible system of trauma care.

Those affected by road trauma such as Robyn Wood a co-founder of the Road Trauma Support Tea, in our State and our host Dawn Williams have advocated for more services to be both available and, as I said, accessible. Many have benefited from such activism.

As I also said, some victims and or their families are unexpectedly thrust into the strange, legalistic world that is our criminal justice system. They often have to deal with police, prosecutors and courts while endeavouring to cope with trauma, such as grief. It seemed to me that a strong case existed to encourage then Attorney-General, Hon. Michael Atkinson to make a grant from the Victims of Crime Fund to improve services for those bereaved by or otherwise affected by road crashes, which he did and the current Attorney-General, Hon. John Rau has continued and increased this sum. I pay tribute to those who keep the Road Trauma Support Team operating. Their passion and compassion serves victims of road trauma well. Tracy, Kylee, Chris and Sue — I thank you.

It would of course be far, far better if we could reduce further the number of road crashes. Preventing road crashes requires improved vehicle safety, improved roads, tougher law enforcement (especially targeting drink-driving, speeding and drivers who show little or no regard for other road uses); and properly trained new and existing drivers.

Victims of road crashes are often looked upon as people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. This view arises because road trauma is associated with the notion of an accident and the lack of appreciation among the public in general of the ways road crashes affect people.

As per my opening comment, this weekend is a time for remembrance – it is organised by people whose lives have been deeply affected by road crashes. Their aim is to prevent others feeling the pain and anguish, the distress, the frustration and the, at times, anger as well as the vast array of other emotions, thoughts and experiences that they endured, and in some cases, continue to endure.

Alas, it is inevitable that people will be killed and injured on our roads. Many steps have been taken to reduce the road toll BUT – and that is a BIG BUT when all is said and done we must all become safer, more considerate road users.

Your experiences and my experiences must be more than the stern lights of a ship that illuminate only the track it has passed. Rather, we must become beacons that warn others of the inherent dangers on our roads. This should be our message of remembrance this weekend and thereafter.

Let the memories we have of those we love help us. May those we love be in our minds, on our lips and in our hearts – so they live on forever, and give us hope for the future.

May we also this weekend remember those who help victims and their families. For them the personal cost can be enormous.

Thank you and all – Goodnight.”

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