Tragic story of horrific Bruce Hwy crash one of many

The scene of a horror crash on the Bruce Hwy where one man died and five people were taken to hospital.
The scene of a horror crash on the Bruce Hwy where one man died and five people were taken to hospital.

JENNA Douglas stands at the kitchen sink rinsing out the breakfast dishes before stacking them neatly in the dishwasher. 

Today, she is dressed in skinny jeans and a trendy burnt orange and warm black top to keep out the winter chill.

Her dark hair is cut in a fashionable style and lies just below her shoulders.

The 25-year-old talks in a rambling manner flitting easily from one subject to another, adding comment without much substance.

She raises her voice slightly as the rain, beating down on the tin roof of this restored Queenslander in an affluent Brisbane suburb, steps up its rhythm.

There are still crumbs and spilled juice on the bench and it seems like a typical morning in a busy professional household.

But there are no mirrors in this house not even in the bathroom. There are no photographs to be seen, not even a happy snap on the fridge.

And despite the sun streaming through the stain glass windows there is a heavy feeling of dread, like someone gasping for breath.

As Jenna turns from the sink, my eyes are drawn once again not to her beautiful necklace but to the angry red scar running down her right cheek, stretching in a defining declaration from just above her ear to her chin.

I try to avert my eyes searching desperately for something else to fix both my curiosity and pity on… but I fail. For here, without a shadow of doubt, is a reminder of how a life can be changed forever in a blink of an eye.

It has been just over two years since the law student and her fiancé were involved in a car accident on the Bruce Hwy some 50km south of Sarina.

They had attended a friend's wedding in Mackay and were making their way back to Brisbane when a dual-cab ute crossed the median strip and ploughed into the car in front of them.

The driver of the ute died at the scene with six others sustaining serious injuries.

Jenna cannot remember the crash except for the screeching of tyres and the grating crunch of metal against metal. It is a sound that she will never be free of, she says; even sleep brings no respite.

"The last couple of years have gone in a blur," she said. "It's like I'm suspended in time. I know that I am lucky to be alive and lucky that Ben is alive but I can't get it out of my head.

"I'm seeing a counsellor and the plastic surgeon says the scar can be fixed eventually but I am still afraid to get into a car and terrified to drive. Did you notice there are no mirrors in the house? It may seem like I'm crazy but I can't bear the sight of my face. It's like a stranger is looking back at me."

There is little doubt that Jenna's story is a tragic one but the greater tragedy lies in the number of people that share her grief.

More than 400 people are injured on the Bruce Hwy every year, 40 of them fatally, yet continued calls to bring the former tourist goat track up to scratch is met with constant frustration both at state and federal level.

Even when action is taken it comes at snail's pace when what is required is the speed of light.

A report by the Australian Road Assessment Program, that rated more than 20,000km of Australia's highways, shows that although the Bruce Hwy makes up only 7.5% of the national highways network, it accounts for 17% of total fatalities each year.

Of course, a percentage of those are purely through driver error but it comes as no surprise that some 49% of the highway was rated as high risk, with 39% as medium risk based on the number of crashes per kilometre.

Accidents on the Bruce Hwy are a daily occurrence with the Twitter account set up to pass on information on the status of the road delivering a running commentary on the disasters we have now come to expect. Just a few days ago the site was abuzz with "truck rollover 40kms south of Miriam Vale delays 6-8hrs", "Crash south of Mackay", and the sad news that "two children under 10 killed in Bruce hwy crash".

More than 500,000 motorists use the Bruce every day for work and pleasure but the 1700km stretch is more than just a commuter thoroughfare, it is the spine of state linking regional centres along its length and is also an economic highway a financial artery providing, passage for trucks hauling freight from farms, factories and mines. When the highway is cut by flooding, as it has been more than 530 times in the past three years, billions of dollars is lost in revenue.

Interestingly, the Bruce only carries about 20% of the traffic seen on the Pacific and Hume highways but has the greatest proportion of truck accidents in the country.

A report by the National Truck Accident Research Centre says the growing demands of mining have put more pressure on the struggling highway and it is failing to keep up despite some improvements.

The research shows that many of the truck crashes are a result of a lack of overtaking lanes and median strips which leave just 30cm between the driver and oncoming traffic.

It is also often the case that drivers have to wait 300km between rest areas when official guidelines point to a rest area every 80km. When you add these factors to driver fatigue the results are disastrous.

"One of the problems with the Bruce Hwy," says Lauchlan McIntosh, the president of the Australasian College of Road Safety, "is that it was developed in fits and starts. It is basically an old tourist track that grew as the region grew but no attention has ever been given to relevant safety procedures.

"The Bruce Hwy was never designed for the traffic it carries so, of course, lives are going to be lost. There is such an insistence on proper safety assessment in the workplace, for example, yet when it comes to our roads we are happy to just make do.

"There has to be a change in community expectation with people demanding that safety is made a priority. That is the only thing that will force the government into action."

Predictably, in the long run-up to the Federal Election, the Bruce Hwy and the improvements it so desperately needs has once again presented itself as a political battleground with politicians on both sides suddenly coming up with sweeteners to woo voters.

The highway runs through 11 electorates, including the marginal seats of Dawson, Herbert, Capricornia and Flynn, and both leaders will be at pains to convince Queenslanders they have their best interests at heart.

At the end of April, Labor cried from the rooftops about a $4.1 billion injection over the next decade to build new overtaking lanes, tackle black spots and add new rest areas, bringing their total investment to $5.7billion.

But with $1.2billion of that spent 10 months before the announcement was even made and the last billion not expected to filter down before 2023, the whole deal smells a little like creative accounting.

On Wednesday, the Coalition joined the game with a flourish, committing $10billion over 10 years to improve capacity, safety and flood mitigation should they win office.

"The former Queensland Labor government left the Bruce Hwy in a crisis, with the RACQ predicting up to 350 road deaths occurring in the next 10 years if we don't take action," said Queensland Transport and Main Roads Minister Scott Emerson when the announcement was made in Mackay.

"This package will deliver that action."

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was quick to laugh off the promise saying the Opposition had done zip for the highway in the past and could not be trusted again.

"The other mob had 12 years to fix up the Bruce but under the Howard government they only invested $1.3billion," said Mr Rudd. "Queenslanders are not mugs, Mr Abbott. They believe what they see with their eyes, not just pleasant sounding speeches from politicians promising future investment in the never-never."

But Mr Rudd can be taken to task, too. It is an accepted rule of thumb that the national highways, of which the Bruce is one, are the responsibility of the federal government. Motorists do their bit with 35 cents from every litre of fuel they buy going into the government's coffers with the expectation the money will be put back into our roads. This year the petrol tax is likely to raise almost $15billion yet only $3.5billion will find its way to the bitumen.

While politicians engage in their war of words the motor clubs across the country, including the RACV, NRMA, RACQ, RACT and the RACWA, are, in fact, taking action.

They have come out in strong support of the Australian Automobile Association's "Demand Better Roads Campaign" which says it will take at least $100billion over 10 years ($11billion of that on the Bruce) to ensure an acceptable level of safety on our national roads.

And with seven million members which means seven million votes they will be difficult to ignore.

"We understand that there are a number of competing demands on government funding so this unified campaign is not only to insist that we put safety first but also that politicians on both sides realise the severity of the problem," said Andrew McKellar, the Executive Director of the AAA.

"The condition of the Bruce Hwy is now front and centre because of the election and we have to take advantage of that. It has always been obvious that this road is not up to scratch and the longer we delay investment the more lives will be lost. Surely it's better to invest extra money in the highway than having to spend hundreds of millions of dollars extra in emergency services and follow-up care to deal with the aftermath of horrible accidents."

In the coming weeks we can expect an AusRAP report that not only gives the various sections on the Bruce Hwy a star rating but also offers suggestions on how improvements can be made in a cost-effective manner, dramatically reducing the loss of lives without depleting the reserves.

"We are going to use these findings as a basis to call for a mass action safety program," said Michael Roth, the Executive Manager for public policy at the RACQ.

"While the government has invested well in the past couple of years they now need to ramp it up further.

"There has been lots of money invested in improving short sections of road like capacity increases on the Cooroy-to-Curra stretches and flooding upgrades in Rockhampton and Yeppoon, but in this report we have shown that relatively cheap fixes can make long stretches of unroadworthy roads much safer.

"So, since the majority of serious crashes take place at intersections or are a result of head-ons, or a vehicle running off the road and hitting an object, you could implement solutions like clearing trees, having wider centre lines and adding turning lanes. You could also widen the shoulders, put in rumble lines and guard rails, change the size of corners. Those simple things will save lives."

It is clear that to date investment in the Bruce Hwy has been far from adequate.

Despite the political slanging matches that fact is more than evident to the hundreds who are injured on that road each year and will, unfortunately, become a reality for the 40 families who are likely to farewell a loved one before Christmas.

Like Jenna Douglas's face it is a reality that is impossible to hide.

Topics:  bruce highway car crash editors picks road safety

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