Northern Commander Brett Smith knows the true devastation caused by death on our roads.
A long-serving police officer, he has been to countless crashes, comforted heartbroken families over many years and has even been called to scenes where he knows the victims.
His firsthand experience with road trauma is the reason he is so passionate about educating drivers and encouraging people to “arrive home alive”.
He was 21 and fresh out of the academy when he was called to one of his first fatal crashes.
It was at that crash, a young Constable Smith learned of the ‘death rattle’ – a confronting term known to most emergency service workers and something that has stayed with him ever since.
It describes the moment before a crash victim dies, when they are still in the vehicle and an officer can hear them choking on blood, gasping for their last breath.
It does have an impact on our frontline staff.Commander Brett Smith
“An older police officer said to me ‘he’s got the death rattle’,” Commander Smith said.
“It was quite confronting for a 21-year-old police officer. You know death is near when you hear that.”
It is these confronting stories that Commander Smith hopes will stop “selfish drivers” this Christmas season.
“Dealing with tragedy, whether it is on the road or elsewhere over the Christmas period, it has an impact on our people, particularly when that tragedy is preventable,” he said.
“I think everyone in the community has a responsibility to not only think about what they are doing on the road but to also encourage others, their friends and family, to make sure that they arrive home alive.”
Commander Smith said the effect of a crash extends beyond the immediate victims and into the community.
“It does have an impact on our frontline staff,” he said.
“People need to understand it is not just the people that are injured or tragically killed that are the victims, there are a whole range of other consequential victims and they extend right through to police, the healthcare workers, the other emergency service workers and even the guy that comes along with the tow truck.
“Even people that just come across a car crash, it would impact on them. There are a lot of other victims.”
While police are offered support to deal with such situations, Commander Smith believes there is no training that can truly prepare you.
“Even though we have a range of support mechanisms in place people deal with things in different ways and quite often you might think that you’re relatively capable and comfortable in dealing with something until it actually happens.
“Police are not the ten-foot tall bullet proof people that everyone seems to think, we are still humans, we have emotions and feelings and on occasion a lot of our people struggle.”
The emotional effect isn’t limited to the officers involved either. Tragedies ripple through the families of those called out to the devastating scenes.
“I’ve gone home after dealing with particularly nasty matters and your whole family knows that it has been tough,” Commander Smith said.
“I spent time in the country quite some years ago and there were many times I was called away on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and not only to attend crashes but other incidents, where alcohol is usually involved and we have seen stupid behaviour - all incidents that are completely preventable.”
With the launch of The Examiner’s road safety campaign In Your Hands, alongside Tasmania Police’s Operation Crossroads, Commander Smith hoped the message would get through to all road users this year.
“It’s a very festive time of year and with festivities usually comes alcohol so you’ve not only got people driving on the road but you’ve got other road users that might be affected by alcohol.
“People will see increased road side and random breath testing as well as very active police patrolling. People can also expect to not see police, but we will be there … we make no apology for using unmarked cars to detect people doing the wrong thing.
“The message, as always, is if people are doing the right thing and not breaking the law they've got absolutely nothing to worry about. We just want everyone to arrive home alive.”
If you or someone you know has been impacted by a road tragedy, Road Trauma Support Tasmania is available on 6777 6252.