The road safety campaign that finally cuts through
It is an extraordinary moment. A stadium of 4,000 hormone-charged teenagers from all walks of life, sitting in absolute silence, engrossed by the scene playing out before them. No one has asked them to be quiet. It just happens when you’re watching strangers die in front of you.
We are at the 2011 Youth and Road Trauma forum, an event which is the brainchild of the extraordinary team at Sydney’s Westmead Hospital Trauma unit. Exhausted from years of dealing with pulverised youthful bodies due to motor vehicle crashes, the team’s director Dr Ken Harrison decided it’s time for a new tack.
Usually, 16 and 17 year-olds converge at the Acer Arena for rock concerts. This is different. The scene unfolding on the large arena floor is a re-creation of a fatal road crash involving teenagers. The ‘drivers’ and ‘passengers’ are young actors, but everyone else is an emergency professional playing their roles in such a matter-of-fact manner, it’s deeply disturbing to watch.
Before the shows starts, NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell, a father of two teenagers, tells the crowd “it’s likely there are people in this room who will die in a car accident”. Not the sort of straightforward thing you’d normally hear a politician say, but the truth is more powerful than fiction.
Other road-safety shock campaigns have also used actors. But this one is different. For starters, the scenario is based on real events that happened in 2003. Teenage friends driving home from an end-of-school party, sharing texts while driving, a trip that ended in death and injury. And this re-creation is not on a small screen. This one is right in front of the kids, with sirens, screams and lots and lots of (fake) blood.
The event is narrated by Dr Ken Harrison, a lively, rock solid fellow with over 20 years experience in trauma work. He solemnly explains from his podium, as the scene unfurls before our eyes, the process of what happens step-by-step at a crash scene. It’s so gut-wrenchingly realistic my colleague and I feel giddy.
Watching it unfold connects the audience with all the participants, not through clever scripting or artful direction but the sheer reality of watching dozens of strangers mopping up what could be your blood, pulling apart your car, photographing your dead body.
Just when you think the drama is ending, there’s more. And this time it’s 100 per cent real. Real life crash survivors with brain injuries take the stand. They address the silent crowd, revealing intimate details of permanently losing their faculties at 17.
This is the sixth year of the forum and it appears the message could be working. The road stats in NSW seem to be on their side. There has been a steady decline in fatalities, particularly in the 17-25 year old risk group.
Dr Ken tells me he likes to think it’s due to this campaign though its too early to tell - and texting has led to a new mode of crashes. He says that by seeing the Forum, the safety message stays with the audience for much longer. It’s factual, not preachy, and this is the generation who appreciate facts.
Here’s hoping they remember the facts on Saturday nights to come.
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