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Karalee Katsambanis: Driving in WA is like living on a prayer

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The Easter holiday police road safety campaign gets into full swing later this week.

Twelve dead in four days on our state's roads in the recent horrific Labour Day long weekend was a media ratings winner created by some of the idiots who live among us. The front pages and lead stories did not change.

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That was only two weeks ago. But the ridiculous hand wringing, the hyperventilation of many in the media calling the dozen deaths an epidemic and wanting to blame anything and anyone for the deaths was at fever pitch.

Pages were filled, talkback was fast and furious and in the end it is all consigned to the archived tweets and social media posts until the next spate of untimely deaths.

Those 12 deaths should already be uppermost in drivers' minds.

But they won't be.


They never are, unless you are directly affected as an injured victim, a family member or a friend. A few weeks on, most West Australians would be hard-pressed to even name one of the people who died.

WA's Wheatbelt has become known as a notorious fatal hot spot synonymous with poor driver behaviours, attitudes and actions. It has become a veritable graveyard of people whose lives were cut short.

A recent review of the region's blackspots found speeding, drink-driving and other dangerous driving behaviours contributed to the region's high road toll.

Between 2008 and 2013 nearly 200 people were killed or seriously injured in crashes in the Wheatbelt sections of major roads such as Toodyay Road, and the Great Eastern and Great Southern Highways between Chidlow and York.

The roads are essentially the same as they were a couple of decades ago. Interstate people are often shocked just how close trees are to the side of the highway and roads, there is little room for error.

But, while you cannot sit there and wait for a road design to magically change overnight, you can grab the bull by the horns and look at your own shortcomings and attitude.

After twenty years of covering police stories and campaigns across the nation, I can sadly predict that it will be more of the same carnage caused be irresponsible driving.

And so, what will this Easter bring? The same message will be hammered home by police not to drink and drive, speed, wear seat belts – all the usual warnings we have heard again and again for the last three decades.

After twenty years of covering police stories and campaigns across the nation, I can sadly predict that it will be more of the same carnage caused be irresponsible driving.

Then there will be calls for a stronger police presence. There will be calls for publicans to take some responsibility when patrons drive drunk, it will be conveniently forgotten that many patrons sometimes pre-load on alcohol or drugs before even getting to a venue.

Everyone will be calling for someone to do something, instead of accepting the bottom line that there will always be a cohort of people who think our road laws do not apply to them.

We are all living in the selfish generation. No one has time for anything except themselves.

Take a look at the person in the car next to you next time you are at a set of lights or crawling along in peak hour. They will have a head down, no doubt reassessing their profile picture and social media status.

A momentary toot of your horn to edge them along and you will cop a finger or two, guaranteed.

Hopefully, you won't end up the victim of a road rage attack if you have caused them to lose a tweet, a post, a selfie or a status update by your toot.

So, what chance do you and I stand when it comes to driving on our roads?

Very little.

Driving in WA is like living on a prayer. That saying could never be more appropriate than now.

That prayer is that the person driving in the opposite direction is not talking on their mobile, not texting, not on drugs, not affected by alcohol, not driving whilst tired, not impatient, not inattentive and so the list goes on.

Then there is always an academic who surfaces after a spate of deaths on our roads wanting the speed limit lowered.

It does not matter whether the speed limit is 60km/h or 110km/h, lowering a speed limit in Western Australia will have little impact on the number of people who die on our roads.

There is so much arrogance and ignorance out there nowadays that no one wants to take responsibility for their own actions, no one thinks they should take responsibility for their own actions and everyone thinks they are right.

We have seen recent high-profile cases of people texting whilst driving and causing the death of cyclists.

We wear our inability to merge in Perth as a badge of honour. But not possessing this basic driving skill, or even negotiating a roundabout, really isn't a laughing matter.

The mere fact that we recently had to have yellow box junction trials at major Perth intersections to stop vehicles stopping or queuing across an intersection is embarrassing.

Why in 2016 do we need to show motorists how to negotiate the key intersections across the suburbs?

Sure the boxes will help, but really, if a driver cannot work out the length and width of their car and how to negotiate an intersection, then perhaps they should not be behind the wheel in the first place.

In WA, we often hear we are living in 'the nanny state'. We constantly resist being told the right way to do something. People always want to be the exception to the rule. Yet the minute it all goes belly up we are wringing our hands yearning to be put back in the pram and nannied again. We can't have it both ways!

Isn't it ironic that today we have safer cars and better roads than at any time since the motor vehicle was invented, yet we also have the worst attitudes?

People can argue for a lower speed limit, people can argue for point-to-point cameras, people can argue for or against double demerit points during holiday times but no one can argue that nine times out of ten, it comes down to driver error.

Poor driving skills, inattention, over-confidence, alcohol and drug driving remains the main cause of accidents.

Let us not forget speeding, dangerous overtaking, dangerous tailgating, not wearing seatbelts and the list goes on.

Driver education, knowing your own ability, actually knowing your vehicle and driving to the prevailing conditions will do more to reduce the road toll.

Managing Director of Drive Safe Australia (WA) John Van Leeuwen agrees that nine times out of ten it is driver error, not road design.

"An added challenge is getting through to young people who do our advanced driver training courses that if you suffer road trauma, unlike a video game, you cannot just press a button, reset and start again," he said.

Twenty years ago there were no mobile phones, texting whilst driving did not exist, drivers did not wear earbud headphones or indeed any headphones.

True, radios were sometimes up too loud but now emergency service vehicle sirens (which seem to have got quieter compared to years gone by) are competing with the loud radios, the headphones and the hands-free phone talkers all multi-tasking instead of JUST driving.

And here is something worth considering - today manual cars are almost as rare as hens' teeth.

The rise of the automatic transmission now leaves one hand free to type and text or hold the coffee because it is too much effort to use the holder and another thing to have to think about. The brain is not as alert as it used to be because it does not need to be. The left hand no longer needs to be ready to change gear at a moment's notice.

Take a look around next time you are on the road and you will notice that very few people drive with both hands on the steering wheel anymore.

Quaint notions like leaving a car length between cars or even straightening up a car in a shopping centre car park are throwbacks to an ancient era. Today it is a case of near enough is evidently good enough.

Leaving a car length between cars is a quaint old thing belonging to an ancient era.

Along with more 'traditional' dashboards and rear vision ornaments like nodding dolls, daisies and fluffy dice we now have the prevalence of a new set of distractions for drivers. Mounted dashboard cams, GPS Satellite Navigational systems are also adding to the distractions within the car for the driver. God forbid, your world might fall apart if the phone is not plugged in showing 100% battery power all the time!

No one seems to be able to function without a complex collection of gadgets on their dash.

There are too many distractions going on in people's heads and lives that solely just concentrating on driving is a rarity.

I have lived and worked in the Central Wheatbelt and have seen how easily locals were lulled into a false sense of security of 'popping down the road' be it 50kilomentres or 500 metres without wearing a seatbelt.

There are few roundabouts, few traffic lights and certainly no congestion which lulls drivers into a false sense of security.

WA has had amazing population growth but so many drivers from interstate and overseas are bringing their own set of rules and interpretations with them, and many refuse to change or adapt to our conditions.

Driving in the Wheatbelt is definitely not the same as the idea of driving through the English or Irish countryside.

With so many people on our roads again over the Easter break it is time for each and every one of us to look at ourselves and ask how we can make a difference.

As this goes to print, WA's road toll stands at 46. Alarmingly, 36 of those deaths have been on country roads.

There will undoubtedly be more.

Let's hope you and I do not become a statistic and do not cause one either.

Karalee Katsambanis is a mother-of-three and a journalist for more than 20 years. Listen to her on 6PR's PerthTonight with Chris Ilsley between 9pm-10pm on Mondays.