On the road, again

A police officer taking a photo of an accident

Dealing with motor vehicle crashes and the trauma associated with them can be complex and confronting for police.

But the Officer in Charge of ACT Policing Traffic Operations says it is also one of the most rewarding jobs he's had in 30 years of policing.

Shortly after 6pm on Tuesday 2 January, Acting Sergeant Roger Watts received the call to a single motor vehicle accident on Adelaide Avenue, a six-lane stretch of road just a short distance from the Prime Minister's Lodge in Canberra.

He arrived on the scene minutes later to find 'a scene of carnage'.

"My first priority was to cordon off the area, establish a forward command post and crime scene and assist with witnesses who were clearly traumatised by what they had seen.

"The important thing is to stay calm, put a traffic management plan in place to divert traffic, and allow our people to do their job.

Two police officers stand next to a police car looking at a crashed vehicle in the distance
6pm, Tuesday 2 January: Acting Sergeant Roger Watts receives a call to a single motor vehicle accident a short distance from the Prime Minister's Lodge in Canberra.

A short time later Detective Acting Station Sergeant Marcus Boorman, a veteran of three decades of policing in Canberra, Victoria and internationally, arrived on scene of the ACT's first road fatality for 2018.

"We were dealing with an extremely complex situation," Detective Sergeant Boorman said.

The crash occurred during evening peak hour on one of Canberra's busier roads.

An ACT Police response team was quickly established on site to manage the multitude of priorities. These included traffic management and road closures, beginning the process of identifying the victim, speaking to witnesses, searching nearby streets for those who had left the scene, dealing with media enquiries and alerting the public via social media to avoid the area.

A police officer being interview by three media people
Dealing with media enquiries and alerting the public via social media to avoid the accident area is a major priority.

"There were so many issues to manage, so many decisions to be made, and lots of competing priorities, including ultimately getting the road reopened again," Detective Sergeant Boorman said.

"But when it comes to a road fatality you only have one shot at the investigation and to gather as much evidence as you can from the scene. It's so important to get it right."

Detective Sergeant Boorman said one of the most difficult parts of the job was telling the family and loved ones of those killed in a crash about what had taken place.

Multiple police vehicles blocking a road
When it comes to road fatalities officers only have one shot at the investigation and to gather as much evidence as they can from the scene.

"It never gets any easier," he said. "In my experience people have collapsed, I've been attacked because the family was understandably angry and in shock. Others are so numbed by the news there's no immediate reaction at all.

"The family will be searching for answers. That's why it so important for us to piece together as much information from the scene about the circumstances of the crash. We owe it to them to present the fullest possible picture of exactly what happened.

"And the words that you use in giving such devastating news must be chosen carefully. When you consider the circumstances, the words will resonate and stick with those family members for a long, long time."

Detective Sergeant Boorman said he learnt a lesson very early in his police career about what not to say when delivering bad news to family members.

"You should never say, 'I know what you're going through' because unless you've experienced being a parent who has lost a child, you'll never know what they are going through."

While police provide whatever support they can for family members, dealing with serious accidents can take its toll on those officers who attend the scene.

"It doesn't have to be a road fatality to be very traumatic. In many accidents, people survive but suffer horrific, life-changing injuries.

"It can be very confronting, especially where children are involved in crashes. Most days, our officers are dealing with death, serious injuries, traumatised witnesses and families in shock. It really takes a special resolve and plenty of support for our people, both formal and informal.

A police vehicle near a crashed vehicle
"You should never say, 'I know what you're going through' because unless you've experienced being a parent who has lost a child, you'll never know what they are going through" - Detective Sergeant Marcus Boorman.

"It is important that we all look after each other, and we do that every day."

Detective Sergeant Boorman welcomes the recent change in policing culture where anyone who's struggling to deal with their emotions can reach out for support. He said it was no longer a sign of weakness to do so.

Acting Sergeant Watts, who spent 10 years working in ACT Traffic, said it was crucial that officers look after each other during and after traumatic events such as a road fatality.

"The safety of my people is always my priority – they will always come first. We are a small family and we watch each other's backs," he said.

At about 10.15pm on Tuesday 2 January, police reopened Adelaide Avenue to traffic. The two people who had fled the scene had been located and taken into custody, the family of the victim had been given the grim news, the accident investigations team had completed their work, the wreckage had been removed.

Having spoken to the media earlier in the day about poor driver behaviour on Canberra's roads over the Christmas-New Year period, Detective Sergeant Boorman finished his long day again in front of the media cameras, reporting on the first death on ACT roads for 2018.

He again appealed for drivers to take greater care and to slow down, so more lives aren't lost.

His final word though is in praise of his colleagues in ACT Traffic.

"The professionalism of the team shines through every time, as it did on this occasion. I cannot fault their dedication, commitment and passion in what are often the most traumatic circumstances."

A tow truck with a crashed vehicle on the back tray
10.15pm, Tuesday 2 January: Those who had fled the scene were now in custody, the family of the victim had been given the grim news, accident investigators had completed their work, and the wreckage had been removed.

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