Unsafe driving taking massive toll on region

RESILIANT: Emergency medicine specialist Dr Cathy Constantine, Coffs Harbour Ambulance station officer Jancinta Young and Sgt Jarrod Langan are on the front line in responding to road fatalities.
RESILIANT: Emergency medicine specialist Dr Cathy Constantine, Coffs Harbour Ambulance station officer Jancinta Young and Sgt Jarrod Langan are on the front line in responding to road fatalities. Trevor Veale

GAI Newman and her family will never forget July 9.

The Coffs Harbour resident will forever remember that phone call from her sister saying Ms Newman's nephew, Michael, had been killed in a car crash.

Michael was one of 16 people killed this year on Coffs/Clarence roads - the highest in the Northern Region that runs from the Hawkesbury River to the Tweed.

Ms Newman was saddened so many families had endured a similar pain this year.

"It's incredibly sad that so many others have been through what we've been through," she said.

The harrowing statistic goes beyond 16 lives lost. Those deaths scar 16 different families, friends, work colleagues and communities for the rest of their lives.

Those scars are also endured by the sometimes forgotten faces behind fatalities: emergency services.

"From a police perspective, it gets really frustrating when you have 16 fatalities and you are doing everything you possibly can and the message isn't getting through," Coffs/Clarence Highway Patrol supervisor Sergeant Jarrod Langan said.

"You really take a bit of a beating, so when you go to that next fatal, each one just seems to get worse and worse."

The impacts extend to police officers, who are among those first on the scene, the paramedics who rushed the patient to hospital, and the doctor who fronts the families with the life-changing news.

It's a situation Dr Cathy Constantine, emergency medicine specialist, has to confront on a daily basis. And it isn't easy.

"Those are always the conversations where your heart sinks. It's difficult," Dr Constantine said.

She said telling loved ones in a clear but sensitive manner was paramount to ensure they weren't misled with false hope.

Sgt Langan said he had felt the pressure of delivering the painful message to families that their loved one won't be coming home.

"It's hard. Plenty of times I've sat in the lounge room with family members and I've cried harder than them," he said.

"Under the blue uniform, the white uniform (of the ambulance officers), the green scrubs, we are just people like everybody else."

Coffs Harbour Ambulance station officer Jacinta Young said, like the hospitals and police force, NSW Ambulance had support mechanisms to help staff cope after confronting horrific scenes such as road fatalities.

"At the time you are too busy to talk through what's happening, but at the end, and particular at the hospital, that's where we have an informal debrief," Ms Young said.

While emergency services must soldier on, Ms Young identified the "hidden costs" of serious road crashes, where loved ones become carers for crash victims left with permanent injuries.

Ms Newman is now living with the lack of closure associated with the suddenness of Michael's death.

"It's such an abrupt, violent end to a life," Ms Newman said.

"The ripple effect goes on and on.

"You wish you had an extra phone call. I certainly wished I'd seen him (before he died)."

So what is the answer to stopping deaths on Coffs/Clarence roads?

Sgt Langan said personal responsibility of motorists must be at the forefront.

"(Police) can be out there stopping people, breath testing people, the nursing staff and the ambos can pick people up and take them to hospital and fix people up the best they can, but it doesn't have to happen because all of this starts with the person behind the wheel of the car," he said.

"I think a lot of the accidents we see are preventable - if not all of them."

Topics:  coffs/clarence emergency services fatal road toll

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