The heartbreaking legacy of fatal crashes
YEARS ago, while working as a reporter in another city, I found myself on the phone to a despairing police officer, the head of the traffic branch, about a series and senseless road deaths.
He had a list of 21 names. Twenty-one people who had been killed in less than a month.
"I don't think people see it anymore," he told me.
Fatal crashes were a part of life. People still sped. They still drove without seatbelts.
They still got behind the wheel while drunk or drugged.
They ran red lights and drove while fatigued.
"What if," he said, "we had all 21 faces on the front page of the paper - so people could see for themselves every person who has died on the roads this month."
It was a great idea and he would help me get in touch with as many of those families who agreed to participate (nearly all of them).
So for days, I spoke to family after family who had lost a loved one to a silly mistake, a bad decision. Maybe theirs.
Maybe someone else's. Some cried. Some were angry.
Some had been lying awake at night, trying to find a solution. Something that would make drivers see the trauma caused by impatience or bravado or thoughtlessness.
But mostly they just missed the person they'd lost.
"I never understood what can happen," one mother told me.
"You'd see it on the news and think, 'how awful for the family' - but it's not going to happen to me."
Since beginning my career as a journalist, I have written hundreds of stories about road crashes.
I have spoken to hundreds of police officers about the terrible things they've seen.
I know at least two police officers who have lain on the road, clutching the hand of a person who has died, until someone arrived to take away the body.
I have spoken to devastated families who wonder whether those first responders care anymore about the bodies in the crushed cars they photograph and measure and inspect: they do.
I have spoken to police who still cry while recounting a crash they attended years earlier; who have had to calm horrified and hysterical parents who have arrived at the scene where mangled cars are spread across the road.
Sandra Cowley, a paramedic with 27 years' experience, saw the mangled wreck of the family car spread across the road. It looked like it had exploded. It looked like a bomb blast.
She thought: "This is wrong."
She tried desperately to save the life of that young woman and when she couldn't, she had to walk over and explain to her sister that there was nothing more they could do.
Police officers say it all the time. Slow down. Take care. Be patient. It could happen to you. They say it like it's a script. They hope someone will listen.
They hope they never again have to stand on the road next to a burning car, next to the bodies of a mother and her small children.