Dark truth swept under carpet
IT HAPPENS. We might not talk about it much, there are few statistics, but we know it's out there on dark and lonely highways. Suicide by truck.
Head-on collisions where a car has swerved at the last moment and driven straight into a head-on collision with a truck.
Traffic police investigate, a coroner draws conclusions but we can never really know. Did the car driver doze off or was it a calculated attempt to end his or her own life?
And it may not be only the mentally ill, suicidal lonely male that decides to take his own life.
The multiple tragedies of murder-suicides where a person murders his or her family and then suicides is undoubtedly transferred, if rarely, to highway murder-suicide.
A car travelling 120km/h crashing into a heavy truck travelling 100km/h creates an impact speed of 220km/h. The mass of a truck is a virtual brick wall compared with the weight of the light vehicle.
Death for the occupant, or occupants, of the car is assured in a direct head-on collision at these speeds.
Suicide today is the largest cause of death for Australians between the ages of 15 to 44 years. This is followed by fatal road accidents.
Alan Woodward from Lifeline describes the suicide rate as a national emergency, accounting for 2800 known deaths in 2014. That's a national average of eight each day.
Just by pure statistics, if these causes of deaths were overlapped, it is plain to see the probability of a significant number of road deaths can be related to suicide or depressive illness.
Big Rigs has not been able to identify any routine and focussed line of inquiry by investigating officers looking at the possibility of suicide by truck in the case of head-on collisions, either in a criminal investigation or coroner's report.
The exception to this is, of course, where there is a blatant indication of a car driver's intention to suicide by a note to loved ones or similar evidence.
The idea of suicide by truck is further supported by the statistics of suicide by train. This form of suicide is an accepted fact that must be dealt with around the world, including Australia.
An average of 150 deaths per year are attributed to suicide in the rail corridor.
Railway management has support systems in place for drivers after a fatal event. Counselling services are supplied to drivers.
Most train deaths occur through pedestrians stepping or jumping onto a railway line when a train has no chance of stopping. Cars pulling onto level crossings in front of a train occurs in lesser numbers.
On the other hand, road transport lends itself to suicide by head-on collision.
Unlike the railways, suicide by truck remains largely a hidden horror. Occurrences are unseen among the broader statistics of road deaths.
The mainstream media often point an accusatory finger at the truck driver, covering real causal factors.
Tasmanian truck driver and truck photographer Sue Streit found herself in a Tasmanian campaign to raise awareness of suicide by truck.
A decade ago, Sue fronted meetings, did media interviews and lobbied government ministers.
"We eventually got the fitting of front under-run protection bars the law for all new trucks in Tasmania," she told Big Rigs.
The lack of public discussion of suicide by truck is a global phenomenon, rarely brought up in the justice system, whether through traffic or the coroner's courts.
Respect for the surviving family of the people who have died is one reason for this, and the tendency to generalise truck crashes without digging to the next layer of causes.
Also there is often an unspoken stigma placed on truck drivers involved with some fatals.
Never overtly accused, a driver carries his or her own horror and often sees this stigma in the attitude of workmates.
For a truck driver, this can be life changing and lead to its own cycle of depression in mental illness.
There are no statistics and very little recorded study for the numbers of road deaths that potentially could involve suicide by truck.
Very little substance is given to these horrific outcomes on Australian roads.
In the US, a Texan lawyer has pointed out that road suicide occurs in more cases than society cares to admit.
Dallas lawyer Bill Chamblee was reported in an American publication as saying that "lots of lawyers and insurance companies, either consciously or unconsciously, are reluctant to suggest suicide".
"When you suggest suicide it can elicit a negative response from juries," he added.
"When nothing else makes sense, however, when every other reason is dismissed, even then you never use the word suicide in court."
This example may come from the other side of the Pacific but it shows that even there, where you might expect suicide by truck rates to be higher than in Australia, it is still a form of death kept under the carpet.
And what about insurance companies? It is often thought a suicidal person will carry out this final act so the death certificate will state "death by road accident".
This comes from a widely held belief, and it seems myth, that insurance will not be paid out on a death by suicide.
However in Australia most insurance companies will pay out on suicidal death as long as the policy has been in place for 13 months or more. Some companies, such as NRMA Fast Track, needs the policy to be valid for five years.
The bottom line is that insurance companies will pay out on suicide.
Most accidental death policies permanently exclude suicide and self-harm.
The legal profession is reticent about involving court cases with highway suicide, based mostly on the fact that experts do not know how often suicide by truck occurs.
Proving that a person has purposely driven head-on into a truck or a pedestrian has likewise stepped into the path of a truck is difficult, particularly if there is no note, no verbal expression of intention to suicide, or a similar post on social media.
Suicide by truck is a fact of life on Australian highways. The statistics of suicides and road fatalities alone make this a high probability.
The transference of trauma to the truck driver is real, and often leads to a cycle of mental illness and depression.
The Australian Road Transport Industry for once needs to tear a leaf from the railway's experience and accept the fact that suicide by truck happens and offer a program of support and counselling through employers to the drivers involved.
Something the associations and union could perhaps take on board.
If you have been affected by this article, help can be found at Lifeline, 13 11 14, and beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.