Life on a limb: A personal perspective

By: Steve Brooks

Few things are uglier or more destructive than an accident involving a heavy truck and a car, but the carnage goes beyond the physical and the visible. Now, 40 years and millions of words since first starting to write about trucks and road transport, here is the story that stands out above all others

Life on a limb: A personal perspective
"Road accidents create victims of the living and dead"


It was early September, 1978. I was just days off turning 26 years of age.

I had one suit, one unstained tie, and wore both to the interview.

The big red leather chair felt like it was swallowing me. Across the office, the squat little man sitting behind a desk littered with books and scraps of paper, wanted to know why a young man who’d been formally trained as a journalist, then chopped and changed jobs like a model changes frocks, should be given the job of staff writer on a truck magazine.

Not just any magazine, but Truck & Bus Transportation, the revered industry title printed every month since 1936. Inept management would ultimately destroy it soon after the new century rolled in, but back in 1978, it was THE trucking tome.

Anyway, I can’t remember what the answer was, but no doubt it was littered with carefully concocted claptrap. Plus the fact I’d spent some time driving trucks, it must’ve been a reasonably convincing response. Either that or no one else applied. Nevertheless, I got the job, though I would later discover that my new employer and specifically its editor with the cluttered desk, Geoff Johnson, had grave doubts about my propensity for long-term employment.

Whatever, adult life had been a roller-coaster ride up to that point but, on that fateful day, my working world finally found substance and satisfaction. Too brash to know it at the time, I was on the cusp of a wonderful career.

Sure, there would be times throughout the next 40 years when the pressures of publishing, constant travel and occasional corporate offers would cause a brief escape to something seemingly more settled, but like a boomerang, I kept coming back to the career that all started on that September day.

Anyway, all these years later, I was caught on the hop recently when a good friend and long-time industry colleague of similar vintage asked: "What’s the most important story you reckon you’ve ever written?"

I couldn’t recall anyone asking that before and to be blunt, I hadn’t really thought about it, either. At least, not until that moment.

Even so, two stories came immediately to mind. First, a lengthy feature written in the late ’80s about truck speed and its role in a dreadful run of fatal crashes. If anyone thinks trucking today is frantic, well, they should’ve been around then when many roads were diabolical and there was no such thing as ‘speed limiting’.

The story was called ‘Enough is Enough’ and started with the words, ‘You stupid bastards!’ It certainly attracted plenty of attention and even won a major award for automotive journalism.

But for me, it wasn’t the most important story. In my mind, that dubious honour would emerge from a self-imposed hiatus in the mid-90s, in a story I believe to be as relevant today as it was when published early in 1996.

Right now, the quote on my desk calendar reads: "If not you, then who? If not now, then when?"

With that in mind, here’s a mildly modified version of that story again. Now, as then, I sincerely hope it might ease the burden for someone and open the door to greater awareness that road accidents create victims of the living and dead. Truck drivers are no exception.

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The driver liked the crispness of clear winter mornings, the sharp bite of cold on hands and face.

It made life seem just as crisp and sharp, as if cleansed, sterilised, by the cold.

Dawn was nothing more than a threat of colour on the rim of a crystal lit sky as he throttled the Kenworth up the steep pinch out of the quarry and onto the weighbridge with the first load of the day.

The weighbridge man didn’t bother looking up as the driver walked into the spartan little office. He knew the truck, so he knew who’d be behind the wheel.

"Another day, another dollar eh!" he said in his boisterous tone.

"Yeah, s’pose so," the driver answered quietly.

"Spot on 42 tonnes," the bridge man remarked approvingly as he handed the driver his docket and shuffled closer to his puny heater.

With that, the driver walked out, glad to be outside. Small talk annoyed him, especially so early in the day.

Besides, the driver was happiest on his own, content with his own company, his own thoughts. It struck him that many truck drivers are the same.

Scanning the banks of gauges for a few seconds, he slipped the Spicer into gear. The Cat engine growled at the load, taking the strain with the strength and tenacity that had always made him admire big bore Yank engines.

Yet in the seclusion of his quietest thoughts was an even greater admiration. It was, however, not something to be broadcast, or to be even suggested. Truck drivers can be wickedly tough on egos, and any self-proclaimed prowess is quickly interpreted as a boast, which just as quickly labels the broadcaster a ‘bighead’. A ‘wanker’. Titles to be avoided at all costs.

But to himself the driver would sometimes smile at the affinity he enjoyed with big trucks. He genuinely liked his ability to not only control the awesome energy of the metal and mass around him, but to control it smoothly.

To be calmly, contentedly at ease with it. To be in tune with it, and proud of it.

Little more than half an hour passed before he reined the Kenworth to a crawl and pointed the long beak onto a rough, recently cut track.

On a broad expanse of newly exposed earth, the bulldozer operator stood waiting beside his idling machine. Just as idly he pointed to where he wanted the truck and dog tipped. Within minutes the load was off.

"Are you on this all day?" the dozer operator casually asked as the driver swiped the small humps of dirt and rock from the drawbar and tailgates.

"Yeah, s’pose so," he replied. "Haven’t been told any different. See ya later."

The morning darkness had seceded to the soft urge of a winter sun saturating a cloudless sky. And in the gentle wash of warm light and eternal sky, life seemed very good indeed.

But today, simple joys would be violently jostled into the depths of despair and disgrace.

Fate, or whatever great force determines future events, was in full and furious control. Unknown and unseen, foraging among circumstance and coincidence, life’s patterns were changing.

As nine o’clock approached, the driver figured he’d be back in the quarry for smoko. It didn’t always eventuate, but when it happened, it was his favourite time of the day. Coffee, a sandwich and the lively humour of a bunch of blokes emerging briefly from the isolation of truck and earthmover cabs.

It wasn’t to be. Not this day.

The last few kilometres into the quarry were on a rough, narrow bitumen road through sparsely inhabited bushland. Without a load, the rear suspension of the Kenworth kicked hard. Common sense and comfort decreed a sedate speed.

One cross street, shrouded by dense bush on every side, intersected the otherwise unbroken road into the quarry. Left and right, ‘Give Way’ signs issued inanimate instruction to those who looked.

From behind a high bank of thick scrub and tall trees, a sedan speared suddenly into the driver’s righthand view. From that vicious moment, time evaporated.

The car kept coming. It didn’t slow. It didn’t go faster. It just kept coming. In the truck, the driver put every ounce of strength onto the brake pedal.

"Oh no!" he said to himself with a quietness that in memory would surprise him.

At that exact moment, he knew there would be no escape.

Death arrived.

Crash is a unique word. It is as it sounds. Cold and metallic. Indifferent and inhuman. A word tearing unmercifully at the fabric of human emotion and existence.

The driver of the Kenworth was for a long time at the mercy of emotion.

After a few years, the shock and feelings of disgrace and shame passed, but the memories and visions were, he knew, ingrained for all his days – the shrill squeal and stink of rubber dragging on tar, the sickening impact, exploding glass cascading over the bonnet of the truck, the frightening sight of the mangled car. The gut-wrenching anguish as he forced himself to step towards the wreck, and finally, the sight and sense of death.

And worst of all, the hopelessness and the waiting. The interminable wait for someone, anyone, to come along, and the hopelessness of being unable to do anything for anyone.

Three elderly ladies died in the collision when the aged male driver of the car simply failed to comprehend the ‘Give Way’ sign, the intersection, or the truck.

Physically, the truck driver was unhurt, but for a very long time the unanswered and unanswerable questions carved at him as callously as torn tin tearing at flesh.

Seconds would’ve made the difference between life and death. A few seconds more at the weighbridge, a few more talking to the dozer driver. But seconds are time and time waits for none.

The ambulance team, police, road and traffic investigators, and eventually, even the coroner. They all spoke to him. All offered some degree of empathy. "Not your fault." "Just a terrible accident." "You did all you could."

Sadly, the words mattered little. Guilt consumed his every thought. An awful guilt, unsupported by reason or fault, churning white hot and vicious.

For many months, he would not, could not, believe suggestions of his own innocence. The support of wife, family and close friends were little comfort. That would change, but right then he maintained with almost blind tenacity that the only innocence belonged to the innocents who had died.

A night, behind closed eyes, the visions pulsed mercilessly.

Daylight brought no relief, especially in the few days immediately afterwards as newspapers and TV relayed the ‘Horror Truck Smash’, crushing the driver further into his own horror world of dread and disgrace. His shame swelled on the images of a big truck, bruised rather than broken, aside a car contorted and ripped by violent impact.

His pride paralysed, his confidence consumed, never had he felt so alone, so beaten.

In time, and at the urging of those closest to him and his own faith, he gripped what strength remained and climbed behind the wheel of another truck. He hated it. Fear and anxiety, the over-reaction to every move of other motorists, the cold sweat, and the images of carnage, real and imagined.

For the first time in his driving life, he knew he was truly dangerous on the road.

But slowly, ever so slowly, came the realisation that he had done no wrong other than contend with circumstance. Self-respect and confidence eventually followed.

Now he drives heavy trucks as well as he ever did. Better, because a greater quality travels with him. Awareness! Awareness of death’s callous spontaneity, and the gossamer threads on which every life hangs.

Awareness of the split seconds that separate this life from the next, and awareness of his responsibility to himself, his family and every other human being using the same roads.

It is a stark responsibility which abhors the arrogance of anger and ego, rebuts the indifference of ignorance, and recoils at the negligence of the foolhardy and frivolous.

I know these things because I was that driver.

If you have been affected by this article, help can be found at Lifeline on 13 11 14, and beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.


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