Jason Bentley is a Port Macquarie based Crash Investigator with the Mid North Coast Police Command. He’s part of a specialist unit which attends fatal and serious injury collisions throughout the region, investigating the circumstances of the crashes and following each case through to the end of Court proceedings.
> What is the most challenging part of the job?
There is an enormous responsibility to the families of victims. When the police at the scene request Crash Investigation, normally only one of the investigators attend. From that time through to the completion of the case at Court, the investigator carries the responsibility of the case alone; this can be over two years in some cases. No matter what happens at Court, it can never equal the suffering of those involved.
The best I can do is to ensure that I don’t make a bad situation worse, which can come from failing to keep families informed of what’s happening during the investigation and the Court process. And almost always, the victims and their families are people whom have rarely, if ever, had contact with police and the Court system.
To make them feel like they matter in the process is challenging. My Dad was killed in a car accident 12 months before I started in the Crash Unit. I was hesitant to be on the frontline of these emotional traumas, but I’ve found it has helped me to appreciate what the needs of families are.
> Are there any particular crash investigations which stand out in your mind?
Generally, I don’t think about the crashes once the matter is finished at Court. When you ask me the question though, I start from the first fatality I went to 10 years ago almost to the day, and then think of the most recent crash I went to … and they’re both equally tragic. With a bit of prompting I can remember every single one I’ve been to, and none is worse or more unique than the others. Some cases take much more work than others, but that doesn’t make the incident more unique.
Quite often tragedy seems to follow families. I’ve done a lot of crashes where people have lost close family members, as in children and/or spouses, in separate crashes within a short period of time. To recover emotionally the first time is traumatic enough, but to have it happen again is something I can’t comprehend.
With the growth of mobile phones, a lot of family members are being called by passing friends when they see an accident. It’s so common now to have a relative standing alongside their loved one trapped inside the car as the rescue crews arrive. It’s such a violent and unnatural way to die.
To see someone you love in that situation has an even greater sense of cruelty for the family members who see it. When I’m speaking with people who have been in that situation, you can tell that they’re empty inside. They’re images that stay with me.
> What would you say are the main causes of road accidents?
Quite simply, it’s people. One person makes a decision that isn’t entirely right, and suddenly their world literally crashes in on them. It’s not a hard thing to keep a car on the correct side of the road and safely back from the car in front – that’s why 16 year olds are allowed to drive. But everyone does something that is less than perfect, and almost always nothing happens.
That behaviour turns into apathy and one day, the odds involving the same thing you’ve done all your life go against you. I’ve investigated or know of crashes involving priests, solicitors, car racing drivers, nurses, school teachers, owners of huge car dealerships, 85 year olds, 15 year olds, and everything in between. It happens to every element in society and no-one is immune.
Most people expect a perfect safety record for commercial airlines, but the community accepts the massive loss of life on the roads each year.
> What are the worst road danger spots on the Mid North Coast?
The two greatest dangers are any undivided roads where the speed limit is 80 km/h or greater and any location where there are pedestrians. These are the environments where, in a crash, the chances of being critically injured or killed are high. Duplication of the Pacific Highway has helped, but fatalities can still happen, with vehicles leaving the road and hitting trees or rolling over.
While people are in control of vehicles, there will always be danger.
> Are road safety messages starting to get through to people?
It’s hard for me to say. Certainly drink-driving attitudes have changed, but there are still lots of people doing it. Similarly, with speeding.
The use of mobile phones while driving is probably the next big issue to be tackled. It’s always when I’m not working, but the number of parents with kids in the car or P plate drivers I see using phones in residential areas is really scary. The research is growing to indicate use of any phone while driving, hand-held or hands-free, is equivalent in some circumstances to the effects of drink driving. A major transport company in Europe has banned the use of all phones whilst driving. When mobile phones first became widely available in the early 90s, there was a huge amount of public opinion about the dangers of using phones while driving. People are now texting while driving. In-car navigation systems have their own dangers as well, creating another distraction.
The majority of crashes aren’t alcohol or speed related – they’re driving error related. So, as one safety issue is controlled, it seems another takes its place.
> You are involved in a young driver education program called the Power of Choice. Tell us about that …
This is a half-day volunteer programme that is delivered to Year 11 students. The students are shown a scenario using the local rescue crews with a real car. The students divide into smaller groups and are spoken to by a group of presenters related to the industry of motoring and its effects. They include a young woman with an acquired brain injury, parents of victims and a paramedic.
But it’s not all doom and gloom; a driving instructor and a mechanic take the students through the basics of each. At the end of the day, the local Magistrate speaks with the students about real cases involving young drivers and the way their actions result in the consequences delivered in Court.
> Has it been successful?
It’s not a learn to drive programme; it’s a learn to think programme. We outline the same issues I’ve been talking about – that it can happen to anyone. Living to 21 isn’t the magic milestone; it’s making sure that you’re never involved in a crash. The responsibility is just as great for passengers as it is for drivers. We’ve had past students tell us they’ve had the courage to speak out when they’ve been in a car with friends. They say that without the program, they probably wouldn’t have said anything. If we change that peer thinking, much like the change in attitude to drink driving, then there will be a change for the better.
Since the program started in 2005, there hasn’t been a fatality in this area involving a local young driver. I joined the program hoping to save one family the tragedy of a loss – to have no deaths is fantastic.
> What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
I don’t think I could stretch what I do to the point of being rewarding. Certainly the Power of Choice is the best thing I do, but it’s not really within the definition of my role, I’ve made time for it, because I believe in it.
For the families I deal with, receiving really genuine thanks from them for my efforts in keeping them informed, taking the time to explain the processes to them and for being the person they call when no-one else can help makes you feel worthwhile. Our job is as much about victim care, as it is about the legal process.
It doesn’t mean much to families if we leave Court with a great result if they’re standing there wondering what’s happened over the last 18 months or 2 years since the accident happened.
Often, a piece of jewellery or other piece of sentimental property isn’t found straight away. When we spend a day going through the wreckage of a car and find it, there’s a lot of gratitude, which you can see eases some of the pain. Making that small difference for the better is rewarding to me.
> What would be your main message for drivers, young and old?
Don’t take what you do or who you love for granted. You’re never too young, never too old. The next time you get in a car or see one of your family drive off might be the last memory you have. Bad luck happens, but your choices influence the outcome of how bad your luck is.
> Thank you for your time Jason.