28 October 2022

'Physics never takes a day off': the trauma behind every serious crash on our roads

| Claire Fenwicke
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Four first responders in front of vehicles

Officer in Charge of Road Policing, Acting Inspector Travis Mills, Canberra Hospital trauma co-ordinator Georgia Gotts, ACT Fire and Rescue Commander Guy Cassis and intensive care paramedic Pat Meere are calling on the Canberra community to step up and help them stop trauma on our roads. Photo: Claire Fenwicke.

WARNING: This article details graphic content some readers may find distressing.

If you have a crash on our roads, what happens to your body comes down to what you were doing beforehand, physics and luck.

For Canberra Hospital trauma coordinator Georgia Gotts, the equation is simple: “The faster you’re going, the harder you’re going to hit something. The body stops, but everything else keeps going.”

In light of the ACT’s climbing road toll – 18 people have already died on our roads this year – police, emergency services and health have come together to highlight the trauma a crash has on your body, your friends, family and those who respond to such a scene.

While some fatal crashes this year were believed to be due to circumstances outside a driver’s control, such as a medical episode, most have been avoidable.

They usually involved the ‘fatal five’: speeding, intoxication, driver fatigue, driver distraction or not wearing a seatbelt. Sometimes it was a combination.

READ ALSO Is technology the solution to ending dangerous driving forever?

Officer in Charge of Road Policing Acting Inspector Travis Mills detailed one incident he attended where a driver was wearing a seatbelt but was distracted and just going over the speed limit.

“We calculated the speed after the fact – the posted speed limit was 60 km/h, and we estimated that they were going at about 65 km/h,” he said.

“He sustained a partial decapitation as a result of crashing into a tree.”

Remarkably, the driver’s unrestrained passenger survived and was able to get themselves out.

“Our vehicles are there to do the best for us with all active and passive safety features, but the onus is on us to make sure we never need them,” he said.

Act Insp Mills detailed what could happen inside your body due to the physics involved in a crash, even if there were no overtly physical signs of trauma, including aortas being torn off hearts or ribs puncturing organs.

ACT Fire and Rescue Commander Guy Cassis summed up how we could sustain such damage even in accidents at lower speeds.

“The human body was only ever designed to run,” he said.

“We’ve created vehicles that take us well beyond that and physics never takes a day off.”

READ ALSO After a horror year on the Territory’s roads, what will a dangerous driving inquiry do?

The trauma from a crash isn’t just physical.

It also takes a mental toll on everyone involved, from the first responders to victims’ families and those who come across a victim each day in the office kitchen or classroom.

When emergency crews arrive on the scene, every sense is confronted.

“Seeing how a car can be mangled in such a state, and knowing there are people in these vehicles, it’s visual, there’s auditory, and there’s the smell – all your senses are activated at these scenes,” Cmdr Cassis said.

Intensive care paramedic Pat Meere explained while crews had extensive training in how to deal with trauma, it didn’t make such incidents any less confronting, “particularly when you’ve got people with multi-trauma and multiple people in the car, some of which paramedics have to decide whether they’re going to resuscitate or not, based on injuries, based on the mechanism, based on what they find when they assess the patient.

“And that’s before we think that what we essentially do is bring organised chaos to chaos … to provide the best level of care to then get the patient to hospital alive, if that’s possible.”

Once at hospital, Ms Gotts’ team are confronted with the trauma experienced by a person’s body after an accident.

They are also there when family members see just how injured their loved ones are.

“It’s incredibly traumatic when family members see their loved ones on life support with breathing tubes,” Ms Gotts said.

“It’s not uncommon for them to drop to their knees and bellow in anguish.

“That ripples throughout the unit and takes everyone’s breath away for a minute.”

READ ALSO Parents of children lost on ACT roads want harsher sentences but lawyers urge caution

For those who survive a crash, and those left behind, the trauma could continue if there was a coronial inquest or criminal charges, and there are also financial impacts.

Victims could end up with lengthy spells in rehabilitation facilities in other cities due to brain injury or burns, and some need help for life.

“We’ve had numerous patients this year that have gone into life-long care,” Ms Gotts said.

“When you have a fatality, it’s a loss of the future of that person’s life, but the same goes when you survive a significant injury like that.

“Your life is never the same. It’s not the same for your family either.”

All emergency services members have pleaded with families to start having conversations around the kitchen table about proactive driving and for parents to remember that your children are looking at your driving habits long before they get their licenses.

“It’s all about looking at the conditions and looking at the road ahead. What is the traffic doing? What’s my distance between other vehicles? What are their distances to me? What speeds are we all doing?” Cmdr Cassis said.

“Rather than being reactive to a lot of things that come at us, you can pick up on certain things as you’re driving along, and you can make adjustments to where you are in relation to everyone else well before anything can happen.

“We can only do as much education from our perspective, but everyone’s got to step up to the plate.”

At the end of the day, when we use the roads – as a driver, a passenger, a rider or a pedestrian – we need to not just think of ourselves and what our actions on the road could do to us, but what it could do to everyone else around us.

“Life isn’t a video game; you can’t hit reset,” Act Insp Mills said.

“Half a second, a millisecond of inattention can have life-altering consequences for everyone.”

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“If you don’t have cruise control, you can train yourself to drive slightly under the speed limit so that even if you occasionally increase speed by a few kph, you’re still under the limit.”

Likely if you drive the speed limit shown on the speedometer you will be driving under the speed limit, as they tend to show less that the actual speed, so no need to drive under the speedometer speed.

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