Insight: Teacher shares her anguish at rural road death toll

English teacher Wendy Elrick tells her story
English teacher Wendy Elrick tells her story
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The devastating comment came at the end of a school film about a new road: “Every year I’ve been a teacher, I’ve had to bury a pupil because of a road accident – every single year.”

For Wendy Elrick, the anguish of the loss of a child has been repeated at least ten times during her career across three secondary schools in Aberdeenshire.

With heartbreaking regularity, the English teacher has found herself hit by the far-reaching ripples of grief that touch extended families, schools and communities when a youngster dies on Scotland’s roads.

If it wasn’t one of her own pupils who had been killed, it was a former pupil, or an older sibling of someone in her class.

They number among the dozens of under-26s killed in crashes every year across Scotland despite all the hard-hitting road safety campaigns and educational initiatives in schools.

Although the long-term trend has been downward, the death 
toll has “flatlined” since 2011, as Neil Greig of motoring group IAM RoadSmart put it.

Picture: Robert Perry

Picture: Robert Perry

That has prompted a major shift in official thinking, which could lead to a sea change in how young drivers are regulated.

A total of 40 drivers aged 25 or under were involved in fatal crashes in Scotland in 2016, the latest figures available, up three on the previous year.

It was also only one fewer than in 2011, and four above the 2012-16 average.

In all, 32 died, along with 25 passengers in 2016. A further 309 young drivers were involved in serious injury crashes.

June Ross, who set up Don't You Forget About Me

June Ross, who set up Don't You Forget About Me

Last year’s figures are due to be published later in the autumn, following initial statistics which show an overall road casualty reduction.

Elrick’s dramatic admission came in an Inverurie Academy film made by 14-year-old pupils about the planned completion of the Aberdeen bypass, or western peripheral route, late this autumn.

She said in the film: “The fact that this could make driving in Aberdeenshire safer is a huge priority for me.”

Elrick, who previously taught at Aboyne Academy and Banchory Academy, told Scotland on Sunday: “It is desperately sad, but there are incidents which claim lives.

“At that time, the most important role teachers play is to support the peer group and the wider pupil community who will be struggling to process what has happened.

“It is fundamentally important that staff also support each other at a time like that.”

Among such fatalities during her career was former Aboyne Academy pupil Zoe Dunn, 18, who was killed in 2012 when her car hit a tree. Her parents spoke at the time of “an immense sadness overwhelming the family”.

Two years earlier, Mark Scott, 19, who had attended the same school, was killed when his friend crashed while racing at high speed, hit a wall and somersaulted into a field. His mother, Dorothy-Anne Scott, said of the loss of her only child: “Mark lost his life and I’ve lost everything of meaning in mine.” The driver, Jack Parkes, 20, was jailed for 32 months.

In 2006, Banchory Academy pupil Alexander Michalski, 17, was killed when the car he was in crashed down an embankment and hit trees. His best friend and fellow pupil Cameron Malone, 17, who was driving, was cleared of careless driving.

Michalski’s parents, Linda and Greg, said shortly after his death: “It is every parent’s worst nightmare that, on what started out as being such an ordinary day, a child/young adult should be involved in such a terrible accident and be so suddenly taken away.

“During the last few days, we have repeatedly asked ourselves how such accidents can be prevented from happening and how other parents can be saved from enduring the same heartache that we are now going through.”

Among other incidents, Douglas Maclugash, 21, who attended Aboyne Academy, died after his car collided with another on Christmas Eve 2010.

Another former Aboyne Academy pupil, Natasha Clark, 17, died in 2012 after the car she was travelling in smashed into a rock in Argyll. James Neill, 35, who was driving, was jailed for nine years.

Emma Bellu, chief executive of north-east safety education charity Absafe, said the region had a very high level of young licence holders because of its rural nature, and because of its relative wealth, they also had access to faster cars.

She said: “That leads to a lot more accidents in our area than other places in the UK. A lot of our rural roads are not very suitable for the high levels of traffic they have and there is a very high rate of collisions.”

The latest annual survey of Scottish roads with the greatest risk of death or serious injury includes six in the north-east in the second highest category.

The Borders, Stirling, and Argyll and Bute were among other council areas with the most such roads in the Road Safety Foundation report, calculated by the number of crashes from 2013-15 relative to traffic levels.

Official figures show 16 to 22-year-olds have the highest casualty rate of any age group, at 3.5 per 1,000 population, compared with 2.1 for those in their 50s. It is almost as high for young females – 3.4 – as young males – 3.7.

Road safety charity Brake said road deaths had a huge impact. A spokesman said: “The death of someone close in a road crash is extremely traumatic. Flashbacks to the time when the death happened, or when you heard about it, may be experienced. This means it feels like it is happening again. The trauma of your experience can place intense and prolonged pressure on your body. Heart palpitations, feeling faint or dizzy, excessive sweating, tremors and choking sensations are common.”

June Ross set up the Don’t You Forget About Me support group for victims of road traffic incidents following the death of her son Ian, 22, who was a passenger in a car driven by a 23-year-old friend which crashed in 2010 in Aberdeenshire.

She said: “Ian’s horrific death was unbearable – he was a passenger who died due to speed, and what was charged as dangerous driving.

“Ian had not discussed his wishes on death – why would he at that age? The reality is that we all need to discuss what we would prefer in a funeral and a resting place, as this alone evoked, instead of pulling my ex-husband together with us, more conflict. It’s taken years for us to agree and come united again.

“Basically, the grief, loss and heartache doesn’t always make family and loved ones pull together, so obviously anything that can be done to make our roads vehicles and drivers safer, the better to avoid tragic life-changing and lifelong loss. We are, as Ian’s family, now united and in agreement, but it’s been a long time and people really don’t realise the impact it can take on each individual family member, friends, and colleagues.

“Every birthday, anniversary, Christmas, wedding, etc – all contain an ‘empty chair’.

“I wouldn’t wish this on anyone to lose what we lost – my first baby, my first son – a unique, friendly, sociable, independent, spirited, cheeky and very much loved son and brother that we all miss every single day.”

Among campaigns used in secondary schools in Aberdeenshire and some other parts of Scotland is Safe Drive Stay Alive, in which a re-enactment of a crash involving young people is screened, followed by relatives of people who have been killed or injured describing how it has affected their lives.

An emergency services source who has attended one of the presentations said: “When the relative walks on after the film, that really knocks them. They don’t realise one small mistake could have horrific consequences – it really does hit home.”

Elrick said: “There is an awful lot of work which goes on to help educate young people about road safety in Inverurie and beyond. Safe Drive Stay Alive is a powerful tool to land the importance of safe driving, and we do a lot with parent councils and Police Scotland to increase awareness with pupils and their families.”

Such campaigns seek to target the factors which make young drivers the riskiest on the roads – lack of experience and poor attitude. Rural single carriageway roads pose the biggest danger because of a combination of high speed and variety of hazards, such as bends and hidden junctions.

That is compounded by a teenager behind the wheel being egged on by his or her mates or distracted by a mobile phone.

Greig, IAM RoadSmart’s Scotland-based policy and research director, said: “Road safety in schools has access to lots of great resources but delivery is still pretty inconsistent across Scotland.

“Road Safety Scotland, the official body, has well-designed, curriculum-linked resources for all ages, but it’s still down to individual schools as to what, how often and when they use them. It’s not a curriculum requirement.

“Support from the schools inspection service would help – you get a better report if you do road safety – but again that has often been down to individual inspectors’ views.”

The lack of a sustained reduction in young drivers’ deaths has fuelled calls for restrictions on newly qualified drivers, which UK ministers have previously rejected.

Graduated driver licensing (GDL) would place limits on new drivers, such as the number of passengers they could carry, and a curfew on when they were allowed on the roads. It has been seen as successful in countries such as Australia and New Zealand and in some US states, significantly cutting crashes and injuries.

Margaret Dekker, secretary of Scotland’s Campaign against Irresponsible Drivers (Scid), said: “There is a wealth of evidence from these countries that GDL is effective in reducing young driver casualties.

“Following its introduction in New Zealand, car crash injuries were reduced by 23 per cent for 15 to 19-year-olds and 12 per cent for 20 to 24-year-olds.

“Sixteen-year-old drivers in the United States who are subject to GDL have 37 per cent fewer crashes per year and it is estimated that more than 500 lives could be saved annually in the US if all states adopted the toughest GDL provisions.”

There has been a growing consensus on GDL’s merits among road safety campaigners, insurers, academics, motoring groups and the Scottish Government, which has called for Scotland to be a pilot.

Highlands and Islands Labour MSP David Stewart, who has championed road safety improvements for young people, said: “We have campaigned for a form of GDL for eight years, which would save up to 22 lives in Scotland alone and £80m to the economy, calculated by research into Scottish road collisions by Cardiff University.

“So many countries around the world have adopted a form of GDL and reduced road casualties amongst the young, and we need to do likewise here.”

The UK government has previously said driver training should be focused on preparing for the driving test.

But in what may prove to be a watershed moment, ministers have agreed to monitor the scheme’s introduction in Northern Ireland during 2019-20 ahead of other parts of the UK, including Scotland, potentially following suit.

Measures include a six-month mandatory learning period before the driving test, and passenger carrying restrictions.

A spokesman for the UK Department for Transport said: “We have decided to use the introduction of GDL in Northern Ireland as a pilot to gather evidence on the potential for GDL in Great Britain.

“We will liaise with [Scottish Government agency] Transport Scotland officials on any consideration of the evidence throughout this process.”

Transport secretary Michael Matheson said: “We support the introduction of GDL – where interventions are put in place during the learner driver period and for a time following the driving test.

“We will look with interest at the development of the Northern Ireland pilot.

“Ministers have made numerous representations over a number of years, asking for the UK government to take action or to consider devolving power to Holyrood to enable measures to be taken forward north of the border.”

But Scid would like to see tighter restrictions. Dekker said these should include a minimum pre-test learning period, with the age of accompanying drivers raised to 25 or above.

She said newly qualified drivers should be barred from carrying passengers under 25 unless supervised, other than their children.

Dekker also backed an 11pm-6am curfew, and a 20mg alcohol drink drive limit. This compares with Scotland’s 50mg limit which was reduced from 80mg in 2014. She further urged an automatic driving ban for any offences.

IAM RoadSmart, while backing GDL, favoured fewer restrictions, saying it remained to be convinced about the value of curfews.

Greig said: “New drivers are still ill-prepared for overtaking and driving at speed on rural roads.

“We probably need GDL with a requirement to practise on rural roads to really change that, or perhaps some more training interventions in the first year of solo driving.

“Currently new drivers have to learn from their own mistakes.”

17-25 DRIVERS INVOLVED IN REPORTED INJURY ACCIDENTS

Fatal Serious

2006 102 630

2007 70 603

2008 66 587

2009 61 545

2010 55 421

2011 41 344

2012 28 354

2013 32 262

2014 42 297

2015 37 293

2016 40 309

*Source: Transport Scotland