Dark truth swept un­der car­pet

Break­ing un­spo­ken stigma sur­round­ing the hid­den hor­ror on Aus­tralian roads

Big Rigs - - SPECIAL REPORT - Bruce Honey­will

IT HAP­PENS. We might not talk about it much, there are few statis­tics, but we know it’s out there on dark and lonely high­ways. Sui­cide by truck.

Head-on col­li­sions where a car has swerved at the last mo­ment and driven straight into a head-on col­li­sion with a truck.

Traf­fic po­lice in­ves­ti­gate, a coro­ner draws con­clu­sions but we can never re­ally know. Did the car driver doze off or was it a cal­cu­lated at­tempt to end his or her own life?

And it may not be only the men­tally ill, sui­ci­dal lonely male that de­cides to take his own life.

The mul­ti­ple tragedies of mur­der-sui­cides where a per­son mur­ders his or her fam­ily and then sui­cides is un­doubt­edly trans­ferred, if rarely, to high­way mur­der-sui­cide.

A car trav­el­ling 120km/h crash­ing into a heavy truck trav­el­ling 100km/h cre­ates an im­pact speed of 220km/h. The mass of a truck is a vir­tual brick wall com­pared with the weight of the light ve­hi­cle.

Death for the oc­cu­pant, or oc­cu­pants, of the car is as­sured in a direct head-on col­li­sion at these speeds.

Sui­cide to­day is the largest cause of death for Aus­tralians be­tween the ages of 15 to 44 years. This is fol­lowed by fa­tal road ac­ci­dents.

Alan Wood­ward from Life­line de­scribes the sui­cide rate as a na­tional emer­gency, ac­count­ing for 2800 known deaths in 2014. That’s a na­tional av­er­age of eight each day.

Just by pure statis­tics, if these causes of deaths were over­lapped, it is plain to see the prob­a­bil­ity of a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of road deaths can be re­lated to sui­cide or de­pres­sive ill­ness.

Big Rigs has not been able to iden­tify any rou­tine and fo­cussed line of in­quiry by in­ves­ti­gat­ing of­fi­cers look­ing at the pos­si­bil­ity of sui­cide by truck in the case of head-on col­li­sions, ei­ther in a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion or coro­ner’s re­port.

The ex­cep­tion to this is, of course, where there is a bla­tant in­di­ca­tion of a car driver’s in­ten­tion to sui­cide by a note to loved ones or sim­i­lar ev­i­dence.

The idea of sui­cide by truck is fur­ther sup­ported by the statis­tics of sui­cide by train. This form of sui­cide is an ac­cepted fact that must be dealt with around the world, in­clud­ing Aus­tralia.

An av­er­age of 150 deaths per year are at­trib­uted to sui­cide in the rail cor­ri­dor.

Rail­way man­age­ment has sup­port sys­tems in place for drivers af­ter a fa­tal event. Coun­selling ser­vices are sup­plied to drivers.

Most train deaths oc­cur through pedes­tri­ans step­ping or jump­ing onto a rail­way line when a train has no chance of stop­ping. Cars pulling onto level cross­ings in front of a train oc­curs in lesser num­bers.

On the other hand, road trans­port lends it­self to sui­cide by head-on col­li­sion.

Un­like the rail­ways, sui­cide by truck re­mains largely a hid­den hor­ror. Oc­cur­rences are un­seen among the broader statis­tics of road deaths.

The main­stream me­dia of­ten point an ac­cusatory fin­ger at the truck driver, cov­er­ing real causal fac­tors.

Tas­ma­nian truck driver and truck pho­tog­ra­pher Sue Streit found her­self in a Tas­ma­nian cam­paign to raise aware­ness of sui­cide by truck.

A decade ago, Sue fronted meet­ings, did me­dia in­ter­views and lob­bied gov­ern­ment min­is­ters.

“We even­tu­ally got the fit­ting of front un­der-run pro­tec­tion bars the law for all new trucks in Tas­ma­nia,” she told Big Rigs.

The lack of pub­lic dis­cus­sion of sui­cide by truck is a global phe­nom­e­non, rarely brought up in the jus­tice sys­tem, whether through traf­fic or the coro­ner’s courts.

Re­spect for the sur­viv­ing fam­ily of the peo­ple who have died is one rea­son for this, and the ten­dency to gen­er­alise truck crashes with­out dig­ging to the next layer of causes.

Also there is of­ten an un­spo­ken stigma placed on truck drivers in­volved with some fa­tals.

Never overtly ac­cused, a driver car­ries his or her own hor­ror and of­ten sees this stigma in the at­ti­tude of work­mates.

For a truck driver, this can be life chang­ing and lead to its own cy­cle of de­pres­sion in men­tal ill­ness.

❝ Never overtly ac­cused, a driver car­ries his or her own hor­ror and of­ten sees this stigma in the at­ti­tude of work­mates. For a truck driver, this can be life chang­ing and lead to its own cy­cle of de­pres­sion in men­tal ill­ness.

There are no statis­tics and very lit­tle recorded study for the num­bers of road deaths that po­ten­tially could in­volve sui­cide by truck.

Very lit­tle sub­stance is given to these hor­rific out­comes on Aus­tralian roads.

In the US, a Texan lawyer has pointed out that road sui­cide oc­curs in more cases than so­ci­ety cares to ad­mit.

Dal­las lawyer Bill Cham­blee was re­ported in an Amer­i­can pub­li­ca­tion as say­ing that “lots of lawyers and insurance com­pa­nies, ei­ther con­sciously or un­con­sciously, are re­luc­tant to sug­gest sui­cide”.

“When you sug­gest sui­cide it can elicit a neg­a­tive re­sponse from ju­ries,” he added.

“When noth­ing else makes sense, how­ever, when every other rea­son is dis­missed, even then you never use the word sui­cide in court.”

This ex­am­ple may come from the other side of the Pa­cific but it shows that even there, where you might ex­pect sui­cide by truck rates to be higher than in Aus­tralia, it is still a form of death kept un­der the car­pet.

And what about insurance com­pa­nies? It is of­ten thought a sui­ci­dal per­son will carry out this fi­nal act so the death cer­tifi­cate will state “death by road ac­ci­dent”.

This comes from a widely held be­lief, and it seems myth, that insurance will not be paid out on a death by sui­cide.

How­ever in Aus­tralia most insurance com­pa­nies will pay out on sui­ci­dal death as long as the pol­icy has been in place for 13 months or more. Some com­pa­nies, such as NRMA Fast Track, needs the pol­icy to be valid for five years.

The bot­tom line is that insurance com­pa­nies will pay out on sui­cide.

Most ac­ci­den­tal death poli­cies per­ma­nently ex­clude sui­cide and self-harm.

The le­gal pro­fes­sion is ret­i­cent about in­volv­ing court cases with high­way sui­cide, based mostly on the fact that ex­perts do not know how of­ten sui­cide by truck oc­curs.

Prov­ing that a per­son has pur­posely driven head-on into a truck or a pedes­trian has like­wise stepped into the path of a truck is dif­fi­cult, par­tic­u­larly if there is no note, no ver­bal ex­pres­sion of in­ten­tion to sui­cide, or a sim­i­lar post on so­cial me­dia.

Sui­cide by truck is a fact of life on Aus­tralian high­ways. The statis­tics of sui­cides and road fa­tal­i­ties alone make this a high prob­a­bil­ity.

The trans­fer­ence of trauma to the truck driver is real, and of­ten leads to a cy­cle of men­tal ill­ness and de­pres­sion.

The Aus­tralian Road Trans­port In­dus­try for once needs to tear a leaf from the rail­way’s ex­pe­ri­ence and ac­cept the fact that sui­cide by truck hap­pens and offer a pro­gram of sup­port and coun­selling through em­ploy­ers to the drivers in­volved.

Some­thing the as­so­ci­a­tions and union could per­haps take on board.

PHO­TOS: CON­TRIB­UTED

NO STATIS­TICS: Sui­cide by truck is a hid­den is­sue on Aus­tralian roads, an ac­tion that trans­fers trauma and de­pres­sion to the truck driver.

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