Road toll, Western NSW: Police officers' high-tech fight to save drivers' lives

TOWARDS ZERO: Sergeant Steve Chaplin with one of the highway patrol vehicles which is equipped with the latest technology to help police reduce the road toll.
TOWARDS ZERO: Sergeant Steve Chaplin with one of the highway patrol vehicles which is equipped with the latest technology to help police reduce the road toll.

So far this year more people have died on Western NSW roads than during 2018. Journalist Jacinta Carroll spoke to NSW Police officers who have an arsenal of technology at their disposal to help save drivers' lives.

EVERY person killed on our roads is someone's grandmother, grandfather, mother, father, brother, sister or child.

Veteran police officer Inspector Adam Beard, from Chifley Police District, said as distressing and horrific as every fatality is, it's nothing compared to the aftermath, when he knocks on the door of a home and has to tell a family that someone they love is dead.

"Whatever I've seen [at a crash] is always overshadowed by what follows," he said.

"Informing someone their loved one isn't coming home is the hardest thing I've ever had to do."

Road trauma is one of the biggest problems facing regional NSW and the road toll for the Western Region already stands at 46 - four more than the previous year.

Inspector Beard said while police will continue to talk about the importance of road safety, it's ultimately up to each driver to take responsibility for their actions on the road.

He said police will continue to push key messages - driving to conditions and the dangers of drink-driving, speeding, driving while tired or under the influence of illicit substances - and "if we can save one life, it's a success".

Informing someone their loved one isn't coming home is the hardest thing I've ever had to do.

Chifley Police District Inspector Adam Beard

While the road toll for the region is up on last year, NSW Police remain focused on driving it down.

Western Region traffic tactician Inspector Ben Macfarlane said police are winding it back slowly and will continue to target road offences as they work towards zero deaths and serious injuries on the roads.

So how exactly are police working towards zero?

By arming themselves with the latest technology and targeting the biggest killers on the roads: speeding, drink and drug-impaired drivers, driver fatigue and driver distraction.

Vehicles equipped with the latest technology

STATE-OF-THE-ART: Sergeant Chaplin inside the Highway Patrol car, which is effectively a mobile office.

STATE-OF-THE-ART: Sergeant Chaplin inside the Highway Patrol car, which is effectively a mobile office.

THEY'RE big, bold and engineered to catch drivers putting the community at risk.

Highway patrol cars are, these days, mini mobile police stations fitted with state-of-the-art technology that aim to make the roads safer.

Each car has its own computer terminal, in-car video system and automatic number plate recognition system - and that's just the beginning.

Handheld speed check devices (LIDAR and RADAR) are capable, in some cases, of calculating speeding drivers from as far as 600 metres away.

The highway patrol car's Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) system targets unregistered and uninsured drivers and provides invaluable intelligence about people who might be inside the car and be of interest to police.

The system is capable of reading up to six number plates in a second.

We need to do everything we can to remove impaired drivers from the road network.

Western Region traffic tactician Inspector Ben Macfarlane

Cameras mounted on the car's roof link to a computer running optical recognition software and a database of stolen, unregistered or suspect vehicles, which sounds an alarm every time it finds a match.

The data is linked to a laptop computer and mobile data terminal fitted in each vehicle.

The number plate of every single vehicle registered in NSW - including those stolen, unregistered or with plates that have been stolen - is uploaded every morning.

Each highway patrol car is also fitted with an extensive video recording system which films what's going on outside the vehicle's front and rear windows.

Inspector Macfarlane said it's essentially about keeping members of the community safe.

"We need to do everything we can to remove impaired drivers from the road network," he said.

Impaired drivers put everyone on the road at risk

TESTING: Senior Constable John Hagan, from Traffic and Highway Patrol, doing a drug test inside the drug bus.

TESTING: Senior Constable John Hagan, from Traffic and Highway Patrol, doing a drug test inside the drug bus.

DRIVERS affected by alcohol or drugs put everyone on the road at risk: research shows that illegal drugs are present in the same number of fatal crashes as drink-driving.

Mobile Drug Testing (MDT) operates alongside RBT for alcohol and police also have the power to test drivers they believe may be under the influence of illegal or prescription drugs.

Essentially, every police car is now an MDT unit, so it's really a matter of when - not if - drivers on drugs will be caught.

Inspector Macfarlane said all police (both general duties and highway patrol) can and do conduct random drug testing as a road safety strategy.

The current rate of detection is higher than the alcohol detection rate, meaning more motorists are detected with illicit drugs in their system than alcohol, but the percentage is decreasing.

TESTING: Senior Constable Garrett Thebus, testing a driver's oral fluid sample at the mobile drug bus, which travels the region.

TESTING: Senior Constable Garrett Thebus, testing a driver's oral fluid sample at the mobile drug bus, which travels the region.

Inspector Macfarlane said tests are conducted towards a set target (as is random breath testing) and to match road safety advertising.

"NSW Police will conduct one million breath tests this year," he said.

He said this is a priority because fatal crash statistics indicated that in approximately eight per cent of 65 fatalities in the Western Region last year, the deceased person had illicit drugs in their system.

Alcohol/drug involvement is one of the main factors involved in road deaths along with fatigue, inappropriate speeding and non-wearing of restraints.

Western Region traffic tactician Inspector Ben Macfarlane

Of those 65 deaths, another 26 per cent had alcohol or possible alcohol involvement (which is also a drug).

"Alcohol/drug involvement is one of the main factors involved in road deaths along with fatigue, inappropriate speeding and non-wearing of restraints," he said.

So how is a drug test conducted?

DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD TOLL: Operation Merret remains underway in the Western Region, and is one of a number of Traffic and Highway Patrol operations targeting impaired drivers.

DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD TOLL: Operation Merret remains underway in the Western Region, and is one of a number of Traffic and Highway Patrol operations targeting impaired drivers.

WHEN you're pulled over for a random drug test, you'll be advised of the reason for the stop, and will have saliva collected on a DrugWipe.

Police then process the sample and wait for a result (which takes about five minutes) before allowing the driver to go or arresting them for a positive oral fluid.

If it is positive, a secondary saliva test is conducted on the DRAGER instrument either in the RBT vehicle or back at the police station.

If it is positive, the driver is issued with a 24-hour notice of prohibition from driving.

Upon police receiving laboratory results, further action is taken for the offence of driving with an illicit drug present in oral fluid.

Inspector Macfarlane said there is some confusion - or arrogance - surrounding drug testing and how "drugs taken days ago don't impact driving".

Cocaine, methamphetamines and derivatives, ecstasy: there is no lawful reason for these drugs to be in your system.

Western Region traffic tactician Inspector Ben Macfarlane

But he said the drugs being tested for are illegal.

"Cocaine, methamphetamines and derivatives, ecstasy: there is no lawful reason for these drugs to be in your system," he said.

"There is clear evidence of illicit and prescribed drugs impacting on driving ability, fatigue - particularly cannabis use - and fine motor skills."

In the end, Inspector Macfarlane said preventing road trauma was everybody's personal responsibility.

"Driving is a job," he said.

"Don't switch off during your journey, whether going around the corner, to and from the farm gate, or a family holiday.

"Patience is essential on high speed roads, especially when looking for overtaking opportunities."

Preventing more pain is her aim

HEARTBREAK: Tanika Pintos and her mother Michelle Sligar.

HEARTBREAK: Tanika Pintos and her mother Michelle Sligar.

TANIKA Pintos can clearly recall the day she got a call to say her only sibling had died in a road crash.

Three-and-a-half years on, Mrs Pintos, who lives in Orange, said she will never get over the shock of hearing that her brother Todd Sligar was dead.

"I've never been as devastated. My whole world collapsed around me when I got the call," she said.

"There will never be another normal for us again. We just have to try and build our lives around what we have lost."

Mr Sligar, a passenger in a four-wheel drive, was one of three young men who died at Trangie on April 23, 2016 when the driver fell asleep at the wheel and the car veered across the road.

Mrs Pintos is now behind a driver fatigue awareness campaign.

I've never been as devastated. My whole world collapsed around me when I got the call.

Tanika Pintos

She said her aim was to take a stand and help prevent any more deaths through driver fatigue.

Her message is simple: be a champ, stop for a camp.

"Our families would rather us arrive late than not at all," she said.

"It starts with us and to know within ourselves when we are tired and to know our limits to pull over and have a nap.

"Have the conversation with our children, educate them about driver fatigue and continually have this conversation with them. Have the conversation with your mates and family members."

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This story Police officers' high-tech fight to save drivers' lives first appeared on Western Advocate.