The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service is using harrowing accounts of tragedies by people who have lost loved ones to make a lasting impression on those who are most at risk, writes Dani Garavelli
It’s 1.30pm – the middle of the school day – but pupils from Perth Academy and Perth Grammar are being whipped up into a frenzy in a makeshift mosh pit in North Inch Community Campus.
Some of them climb on each other’s shoulders as the room reverberates to How Deep Is Your Love by Calvin Harris & Disciples. On the stage behind them, where local DJ Erin Linton is encouraging them to go wild, psychedelic images are being projected out into the heaving crowd. If it wasn’t for the statue of Jesus watching over them all, and the glint of starched white shirts in the strobe lighting, it could be the city’s Ice Factory of a Saturday night.
After 15 minutes of dancing, the strobe lights go off, the house lights go up. As the pupils return to their seats, they are handed red and yellow glow sticks. In the background, a public information film is playing. It features a series of drivers who glance at their mobile phones and are involved in near misses. The pupils aren’t really paying attention; they are hyped up and still chatting to one other.
Then suddenly – smash, bang, wallop – a boy with a hoodie and earphones is hit by an oncoming car; he bounces off the window, flies through the air and lands on the tarmac behind. In an instant all the hilarity evaporates and everyone is paying attention.
Welcome to Safe Drive Stay Alive Tayside, a Scottish Fire and Rescue Service roadshow which uses every psychological tool, including real-life tragedies related by those who have suffered profound loss, to encourage those likely to be on the cusp of learning to drive to understand that a car is a powerful weapon with the power to change lives irrevocably.
‘You always see car crashes in movies and they’re not so gruesome, but then you see these films – they are horrible’
During the course of the afternoon, the fifth-year pupils will see a reconstruction of a real-life road accident; every so often, the film will stop – and a police officer, paramedic, fire fighter and A&E doctor – will walk on stage and describe their thoughts and feelings as they attended the scene and dealt with the casualties.
Finally, William Tracey will stand before the by-now subdued audience and talk about the death of his two-year-old grand-daughter, Harlow, killed when an angry and distracted driver careered off the road and onto the pavement where she was walking in Coupar Angus.
To say the experience will be harrowing is an understatement; some of the pupils will be taken out sobbing; when the lights come up again many others will be hugging each other.
But, with 3,000 young people in Scotland involved in road traffic accidents every year, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, which organises similar shows in Fife and Grampian, wants to make a lasting impression on those whose lives might be at risk.
Safe Drive Stay Alive, devised with help from psychologists, aims to make the young people think about their responsibilities: as a driver, a passenger and a pedestrian; it forces them to reflect on the risks of consuming alcohol or of using a mobile; and it doesn’t flinch from showing the most graphic of consequences.
“What we are trying to do is create a memory,” says community fire officer Kevin Phillip, who coordinates the Tayside roadshows. “Let’s face it, there’s not a driver who doesn’t make a mistake and you probably make slightly more mistakes when you’re younger. So you maybe turn a corner too quick and there’s a car coming. You get away with it. You are starting to build experiences.
“But if you’ve got a brash, young person and they’ve got a few passengers in the car, these little experiences go out the window. It’s just show off, show off, show off. ‘I know what I am doing.’ Well, you don’t. That’s where the vulnerability is.
“When they see this show, they are emotional. You see it on their faces when they walk out. OK, we can say four weeks down the line, maybe it’s been pushed to the back of their heads. But what we hope is that later, when they make a little mistake, something clicks – and they remember ‘Safe Drive Stay Alive’.”
Safe Drive Stay Alive is just one of many community initiatives the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service has branched into as the number of hours spent fighting fires decreases. They have been going into homes providing fire safety advice on smoke alarms and escape plans for years. “I go into vulnerable people’s homes almost every day: people with dementia, people with alcohol issues, young people without much support – these were the people that were having the most fires. And education is making all the difference,” Phillip says. Thus, the whole thing is self-perpetuating. The more community work they do, the fewer fires there are, the less frontline work there is to do and so on. This allows the fire service to expand into other services: rope and line rescue, for example, water rescue and falls prevention.
As a result, in part, of such community safety work, the number of road accidents is also falling. Last year, there were 146 deaths in car accidents in Scotland (45 or 24 per cent fewer than 2016). The number of casualties was 9,391 (1,514 or 14 per cent fewer than 2016). This was the lowest number of casualties since records began in 1950. At the same time, however, road traffic accidents are the single biggest killer of 15-24-year-olds, and as many as one in five are involved in a crash in their first year of driving. “Many young people think they are invincible,” Phillip says.
Back in North Inch Community Campus, the pupils are waving their glow sticks in the dark like T in the Park-goers. Those with red sticks are told to stand up. There are 22. “That’s the number of people killed in road traffic accidents in Tayside last year,” they are told. Those with yellow sticks are told to stand up. There are 121 of them. “That’s the number of people injured in road traffic accidents in Tayside last year.”
By now, there is barely a sound in the auditorium. Another film starts. It begins with a reconstruction of a boy called “Kyle McDonald” being questioned in a police station. He looks broken. He is being asked about the road traffic accident which severely injured his girlfriend Sarah and killed her sister Kate; but we don’t know that yet.
All we know, through flashbacks, is that the three of them were heading for a music festival and they were all mucking around in the car. Later, as Kyle posts a photo of Kate asleep in the back, he misses a red light, hits a van and then: carnage.
All those – the police officer, paramedic and others – who come on to tell their stories during breaks in the film, do so without any gimmicks. They stand in the centre of the stage and speak with emotion, and without notes, about how they felt when they took the emergency call, when they arrived at the scene, when they realised Kate was dead, when they had to put her body in a black bag and leave her at the side of the road for the undertaker to collect.
They ask the pupils to think about what it would be like for their own families to hear a knock on the door and find two police officers standing outside; what it would be like for their family to sit down for Christmas dinner with an empty seat at the table. They tell them they never get over the deaths they witness; they implore the pupils not to become another statistic.
After the film finishes – with Kyle beginning a nine-year sentence for causing death by dangerous driving – grandfather William Tracey appears from the wings. He is 63 and his hands tremble as he clutches his speech.
William takes the pupils back to a quiet afternoon in October 2016 when his daughter Sara, and grandchildren Dionne, then 17, Leon, then six, and Harlow, two, were returning to Coupar Angus from Dundee.
They had just got off the bus when a Ford Focus driven by Luke Pirie, then 21, crashed into another car and mounted the pavement. Pirie had been texting his girlfriend while travelling at 50mph. He had been angry because he thought she was cheating on him and had also used his phone for calls and Facetime. Harlow was killed instantly while Dionne and Leon were thrown over a roadside wall. Dionne suffered bleeding on the brain and a spinal fracture which left her in a wheelchair for three months. Leon suffered a skull fracture and permanent scarring.
In a slow, faltering voice, William tells how he and his wife Linda had been at home watching TV when they received a phone call telling them there had been an accident.
“We decided the best thing we could do was to get to Coupar Angus as quickly as possible. Linda phoned our brother-in-law to come and take us as I wasn’t physically fit to drive,” he says.
“When we arrived at Coupar Angus we could see the Forfar road at the Red House Circle blocked off with police stopping the traffic. Up ahead we could see a small police incident tent erected on the road. The significance of this was soon to become painfully clear.
“One of the police officers told us to go straight to Ninewells Hospital. That’s where our grandchildren had been taken. When we arrived, we were ushered into a room where Sara was in the company of a nurse. She was breaking her heart crying and moaning in real pain. We all held on to each other as she told us the devastating news: that our youngest grandchild, Sara’s baby Harlow, had been killed and that Leon was in a coma and Dionne was also about to be operated on. This was without doubt the worst moment of my very ordinary life.”
William tenses with anger as he tells the pupils the accident was caused by someone using their mobile phone while driving.
“On top of that, the same person chose to drive while out of control in anger and adding even more on, another person [Pirie’s girlfriend] chose to stoke that anger and keep him using his phone,” he adds.
“Do not call someone if you know they are driving, and if you phone someone and they are driving hang up immediately. Don’t do anything to encourage what is a potentially deadly habit. That is the message to you all now.”
Pirie, who had learned to drive the year before, was jailed for six years. “And in my opinion that’s not nearly long enough.”
William finishes by reading a poem he has written for Harlow in which he remembers her playing with her dolls and her guitar and putting her hands over her eyes in the belief that she can make herself disappear.
After the roadshow is over and the pupils have left, red-eyed and ashen-faced, William explains why he forces himself to talk about the crash that claimed his grand-daughter’s life. “This is the third time I’ve done it and it can be a bit draining,” he says. “But it’s a message that has to be put across. People, especially young people who are starting out driving, need to know [using a mobile while driving] is a needless habit that costs lives,” he says.
His family are beginning to move on. Dionne, who was doing a course in health and nutrition, is now studying law; her mother, formerly a psychologist, is studying to be a psychiatric nurse.
“Sara really seems to have found her vocation in life,” William says. Yet despite the fact they are doing so well, the legacy of the crash remains. Dionne, who spent three months in a wheelchair, and Leon have lasting injuries and there are still days when it is difficult to cope. A few months ago, coverage of a court case of another crash in Coupar Angus brought memories flooding back. In this case, Bradley Walsh, 19, was given 170 hours of community service and banned from driving for two and a half years after he lost control of his car on a bend on the A923, causing it to roll five times. Walsh had been driving for just two months. His best friend Billy Haggart suffered brain injuries and died.
There are some who question the need for the shows to be quite so traumatising. Even after William has finished speaking, there are more public information films including one in which a car wipes out a classroom of children on a lawn.
“Some parents have not been too happy,” concedes Phillip. “But then we had a teacher yesterday who said: ‘I will make damn sure every pupil of mine sees this show’.”
Outside, the youngsters seem convinced of its merits. “You hear about how it’s going to be upsetting but everyone thinks, ‘I’ll be fine’. Then you get in and it properly hits you. The saddest part when William was talking about his grand-daughter,” says Lucy Scarlett, 16, from Perth Academy.
“It was the videos too,” adds Hannah McGilvray, 15. “You always see car crashes in movies and they’re not so gruesome, but then you see these films – they are horrible.
“They start quite happy and you think, ‘This is going to be corny’ and the next thing a guy gets hit by a car. With the music and the effect of the sound, you just get blown away.”
But do the pupils really believe Safe Drive Stay Alive will make them more careful once they’ve got a licence?
“I think it was a brilliant presentation,” Lucy says. “The fact it made us all really emotional means it’s done something. I would never have used a mobile phone when driving anyway. But I am 100 per cent sure this will stay with me.”