15 May 2023

Finke Desert Race organisers allegedly didn't act on safety issues before Canberra man's death

| Albert McKnight
Fink Desert Race start line

The Finke Desert Race is a famous, annual off-road race in the Northern Territory. Photo: Facebook.

The organisers of a famous desert race knew about safety issues and had done nothing before a spectator from Canberra was killed by an out-of-control truck in 2021, an inquest has heard it alleged.

A coronial inquest has been held into the death of Nigel Roy Harris, who was killed in the Tatts Finke Desert Race on 14 June 2021 when he was hit by a vehicle while standing near a track.

In a written closing address, the counsel assisting the coroner, Jodi Truman, wrote that the 60-year-old had been a beloved family member who was a friend to many.

She argued it was clear on the evidence that when the trophy truck came over a sand dune and landed in potholes, a fracture occurred through 90 per cent of part of a rear axel.

Its driver could not stop from veering to the left and, tragically, it careered out of control into Mr Harris and another bystander, she said.

They had been close to the track at the 35 km sand dune, a location that was a well-known and popular spot for spectators.

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Ms Truman alleged there was no bunting in place where Mr Harris, who was attending the race for the first time, was killed.

She claimed no one had been appointed as a safety marshal in 2021 while nearby volunteer officials, who had been given little training by the race’s organisers, took little action on where spectators were standing.

She argued that while individuals should take responsibility for their own safety, this did not absolve the organisers, Motorsport Australia (MSA) and Finke Desert Race Inc (FDRI), from their responsibility to identify and minimise risks to spectators.

She alleged that since September 2018, MSA and FDRI knew it was not uncommon for spectators to be close to the track and be in dangerous locations.

A review from that year claimed the entire course lacked supervision in terms of spectator control, but Ms Truman said that by 2021 there were still no spectator marshals, no safety team to manage spectators and no formal exclusion zone along the course.

She claimed MSA and FDRI knew about the issues, but did nothing.

A report disclosed by FDRI from 2019 had highlighted the risk of spectator injury and recommended signage and barricade tape, but Ms Truman alleged it appeared nothing was done over these suggestions.

Also, in 2020, the author of the earlier report from 2018 wrote to the FDRI president and asked if anything had been implemented since his review, then in May 2021, the MSA CEO was sent an email over concerns about the race.

Ms Truman also raised an email that referred to another buggy allegedly going off track and into a person’s camp, which was about 100 metres away, during the 2021 race.

“I had my two kids behind me, thank goodness as if they were in the grass playing there could have been more fatalities,” the email’s author wrote.

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Ms Truman submitted Coroner Elisabeth Armitage could find that MSA and FDRI failed to satisfactorily manage the identified risk to the safety of spectators.

She said it was extremely unfortunate that so many of the witnesses related to the organisation, conduct and management of the race chose not to give evidence in the inquest.

She did note that since Mr Harris’ death, the MSA and FDRI have been more proactive in establishing systems to reduce the risk.

The hearings for the inquest, which were held in Alice Springs, have been completed and Coroner Armitage will deliver her findings in the future.

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