I’ve been driving for over half my life, the majority of which has been on the roads of Melbourne.
Over those hundreds of thousands of kilometres, I’ve seen and done many things. Sometimes good things, sometimes ‘good stories to tell another day’ things.
But until recently, there was something I had thankfully never experienced. Being the first person at the scene of an accident.
Each year, an average of 270 people are killed on the roads in Victoria, with just over 1000 fatalities reported in Australia as a whole. On top of the deaths, in the past 12 months, a further 1400 people in Victoria required hospitalisation following a road accident.
The shocking thing for 2016 is that despite the increase in safety technology in our cars, the national road toll is up over 14 per cent on the same period in 2015.
But for most of us, these numbers are just that, figures on a page. Something we can tut-tut as we read the news of another shattered family between the football scores and celebrity gossip.
It doesn’t become real, until it is real.
And late one Sunday night a few weeks ago, it became very real for me.
Ironically, too, my first ‘first on scene’ incident didn’t have me behind the wheel of the car. Rather unglamorously, I was popping the rubbish bins onto the footpath a shade before 11:30pm.
Then the sound. The familiar ‘skreee’ of tyres that comes with living close to a busy intersection. You subconsciously wait for the bang that follows as some inattentive driver has run up the back of someone else. A by-the-numbers fender bender that results in crushed pride and plastic and the awkward exchange of phone numbers.
But this bang was different. Three large thumps, a sickening scrape of metal and smashing glass, a final rev of an engine… and then a scream. A panicked, disoriented, uncomfortable scream.
I yelled out ‘call 000’ to no one in particular and ran.
It’s a 40-metre dash to the intersection and I was there before I could even think. A blue Honda Jazz upside-down, engine still sputtering, lying in a pool of glass and fluids in the southbound lane. A white Kia Sportage limping slowly to the side of the eastern part of the intersection. Bonnet crushed, steam billowing out, but obviously in better shape than the Honda.
Some other cars were stopping, while some just rolled on by. People were standing around at a distance, one guy was taking photos… it became very clear that no one knew what to do.
Think about it. Those 1600-odd traffic incidents that require hospitalisation, or worse, occur over a 365-day period around a state that covers 237,629 square kilometres. That’s about four incidents a day that each happen in a 150-odd square km block of the state.
Back in 2003 there were 4.3 million holders of driving licences in Victoria. Let’s round it up to 5 million now and keep the maths going, meaning that in that 150-square km piece of the state, you can fit about 3100 drivers.
That sounds like a lot, until you remember that Collingwood and Carlton draw close to 100,000 people to an area about 20,000 square-meters… meaning that being in the same place at the same time as a serious road accident is a pretty rare occurrence.
Sure, I have simplified things a bit, and ignored population density and times of the day, but considering I spend a lot more time on the road than most, and since 1993 have not yet been first-on-scene – I’d say my point stands.
But let’s assume you are a first responder, do you have basic first-aid training? I’d hazard a guess that most don't.
Surely, you would think this is something that should be taught to all drivers. But without wanting to go into too much of a rant, our driver’s licence testing process is a farcical joke at the best of times, so why would they teach important first aid there – when they don’t even cover ABS braking.
I had done some basic first-aid training some years ago and thought most of it was forgotten, but one key mnemonic came straight back to me that night. DRABC. (Doctor ABC is a little easier to remember...)
Danger. Response. Airway. Breathing. Circulation.
The Jazz was still running, there were fluids dripping, both headlamps were smashed and the intersection was on the crest of a slight hill, with trams crossing in one direction. Plus, the screaming was sounding more urgent. Danger to address? You bet.
I yelled to a taxi driver that had stopped to start directing traffic around the scene. He complied.
The driver of the Jazz was crawling out of the car, dazed and mumbling. I told him to sit down and reached in to turn the car off. His passenger, a first date as it turned out, was trapped and bleeding. She was still screaming, which meant she was conscious and breathing. R, A, B – check.
Phone guy had come across – have you called an ambulance, I asked? Oh yeah, he said, and got dialling. The shock of the situation was obviously not limited to those directly involved.
More people had come up, now. I told two to go and check on the Kia and one to sit with the driver of the Honda.
There was no smell of fuel so the fluid was likely just coolant from the radiator, but the car was now off and there were no downed wires to spark a fire.
It’s funny that I remembered, at this moment, many people on the first-aid course forgetting the ‘danger’ element during the practical exam. It was very apparent now how important it is as a first step.
I dashed over to the broken passenger side and opened the door. The screaming girl was trapped in her seat belt and had slid onto her side. Her arm was scratched and cut from the glass and I grabbed a shirt from the floor of the car (which was now the roof) and wrapped it around quickly to help stop the bleeding.
I didn’t want to move her too much as I had no idea of any more serious injuries. Best to settle her down and wait for the professionals.
You’re going to be okay, I said. What is your name? She was still screaming, but managed to push out some words. It wasn’t English, she was an international student. I spoke to her calmly and tried to use simple words. Ambulance.
Okay, positive, reassuring. I held her hand and told her I would not let go.
It was another part of the course and again something that is often overlooked. In situations where the body is dealing with shock and adrenalin levels are high, calming the patient (it’s a much better word than ‘victim’) is paramount.
I could hear sirens in the distance. So could she. Her screaming slowed. Deep down, she knew it was going to be okay.
A lady came up to me and introduced herself as a doctor. She had just moved in across the road and recognised me. I handed over the care of the girl in the car and took a quick step back from the scene.
Not even five minutes had passed since I first hear the squeal of tyres and it felt as if I had been here for hours. It was only now that I noticed I was wearing pyjama shorts and a t-shirt, and nothing on my feet.
The dash from the footpath to the crash had happened so quickly I hadn’t even put shoes on, and my feet were cut from the glass. Oops.
The emergency services arrived and went about their tasks as casually as you or I walk to the photocopier. I’m sure that, seeing all they have seen, this was a very low-level incident that didn’t warrant too much stress.
I stood back for a few more minutes and realised there was nothing more to do. I walked back home, heart pumping hard, and went to pick the glass from my feet and head to bed.
The orange, red and blue lights reflected off the walls through the cracked blinds as I lay there, processing in my head... had I done everything right? Would I have known what to do if things had been more serious?
St Johns Ambulance Service in the Northern Territory have a great online ‘course’ that runs through the revised DRABC, now DRSABCD – with the addition of ‘S’ send for help, and ‘D’ for defibrillation.
It covers the key points of assessing and managing an accident scene but also some more serious CPR and wound-dressing techniques. It’s no substitute for a proper first-aid course, but it’s worth 30 minutes of your time to have a read through.
The next morning, I took the dog for a walk past the scene and, aside from a bent sign and crystals of glass, you would never have known anything had happened.
In the grand scheme of things, it was a minor incident. The Jazz had run the red light and collided with the Kia as it set off from the green. The central median being the ‘trip’ the car needed to flip over.
While the driver may not be up for a second date, he and his passenger would both be fine. The occupants of the Kia were totally unscathed, and would probably find the next step in dealing with insurance companies, much more painful than the accident itself.
In the heat of the moment, my recollection of DRABC was pretty good, considering I’ve never had to use it outside a classroom. But the whole experience was a bit of a wake-up call.
As drivers, we all need first-aid training.
Even just the basics, although doing an emergency tracheotomy with a biro like they seem to do in every other movie would be cool…
But really, it should be mandatory for all drivers. A prerequisite for you being granted permission to drive on our roads.
I think we all agree that there's a laundry list of improvements that can be made to the way we test for and issue driving licences in this country, but first-aid would be a great place to start the ball rolling.
Even if you read this and commit the DRABC (or DRSABCD) mnemonic to memory, then we are on the right track, and hopefully together we can turn around those road-toll numbers while making the world a better place in the process.
For more information on first-responder actions, check out the First @ Scene web-app from St John Ambulance Service.
You can contact St John Ambulance Service to book a first aid course as an individual, or as a club or business.
Interested in road-trauma data? The Bureau of Statistics have downloadable national data, and the TAC in Victoria offer a range of data points for analysis.
Have you ever been first on the scene?
Share your story in the comments below and let us know if you think basic first-aid should be mandatory for all drivers.