Bending the rules ends in tragedy
SIXTEEN-YEAR-OLD Paul Morris wasn't even meant to be in the car when it ran off a slippery road at Broken Head. Like the Big Bopper and his fateful flip of the coin that won him a seat on a doomed plane with Buddy Holly, Morris had gratefully accepted the last spot in the Commodore.
But fate would have it that Morris would die that October night in 2006, along with high school mates Corey New, Mitchell Eveleigh and Bryce Wells.
Random is one word to describe it. Random in the way this car would crash when so many thousands of other young Australians bending the road rules do not.
Wells' death certificate details terrible injuries , while Ann New looked at her unmarked son in the morgue and wondered what exactly it was that had killed him.
It was random in the way that in a single car, four boys died and one boy didn't.
More than two years since that night, the surviving driver, who cannot be named, last Friday was sentenced to at least two years behind bars after pleading guilty to four counts of dangerous driving occasioning death.
The Lismore District Court heard speed played a major part - the driver was travelling about 111km/h in an 80km/h zone moments before the crash.
There were other factors: the wet conditions, incorrectly fitted tyres, speed signs not correctly placed.
The driver, now 19, swears he thought the limit was 100km/h, when in fact it had been cut just two or three weeks before. At any rate, his provisional licence limited him to 90km/h.
As the facts of the crash were dissected in court day after day, it became apparent there was one thing almost as shocking as the stunning loss of life - how innocuously it unfolded.
On this Saturday night and Sunday morning after celebrating a friend's birthday, the boys were giving Paul Morris a lift to Lennox Head before heading home.
The designated driver had received his provisional licence three months earlier.
A keen sportsman, he didn't do drugs or drink alcohol and was considered by teachers and friends alike to be a responsible, honest young man.
But travelling with his friends that night, he had what the court called 'a rush of blood', and made the kind of decision teenagers in their thousands make every single day.
It was a momentary lapse in judgment, a quick decision to speed and overtake another car load of mates travelling with them to Lennox Head.
He crossed double lines to do it and admitted later it was 'a silly piece of driving'.
Seconds later, it cost four boys their lives, and his life hasn't been the same since.
Lawyers bickered over the weight of his responsibility.
How much jail time, if any at all, for this boy tortured by his actions and his own survival?
His defence barrister, Chris Bruce, SC, said his client admitted he had done the wrong thing.
But he cited psychologists and studies to back up his claim that the driver - while an upstanding young man - was too immature to make a proper risk assessment of the road that night.
Giving evidence before the sentencing, clinical psychologist Chris Lennings, from the University of Sydney, said young brains were easily swayed by 'hot' or 'emotionally arousing' situations not likely to affect adults.
Adult minds were able to ignore the carload of rowdy friends, blaring music or other such distractions, but this type of cognitive function only fully develops in the early 20s, he said.
A trial currently under way in Melbourne has found major differences in the way fathers and sons think and react.
“Added to that, teenagers place very little importance (on driving safely) because they don't believe it will ever happen to them,” Dr Lennings told the court.
The case, which made headlines across the country, has already made a difference to licensing laws in NSW.
In the immediate aftermath of the crash, the community was stunned into action.
Lobbied by the victims' families, the NSW Government implemented new restrictions on provisional licences, making it illegal for P1 drivers to carry more than one under-age passenger between 11pm and 5am.
As Judge Colin Charteris noted, it may not be enough.
“This case is an excellent example of why (the government) should reconsider the age when people get licences,” he said.
“We are giving people at 17 a licence. It's like giving, potentially, a loaded gun.”
In the latest statistics, 351 fatal crashes occurred on NSW roads in 2007; provisional drivers were involved in 62 of them.
Robert Wells, Bryce's father, said the statistics don't come close to revealing the true picture, given non-fatal crashes aren't included.
“We teach our kids at 80km/h with mum and dad in control of the situation, then we send them off, hoping they're thinking themselves,” he said.
“But you've got four or five mates in the car, all this distraction and they don't even have the cognitive function to be able to handle that.”
Mr Wells will lobby the Government to further tighten car licensing laws, including upping the age to 18 - the same age teens can vote, buy alcohol and be sent to war.
“The Government has got it wrong - and I've said before we need Federal licences in place,” he said.
“It's a lottery with these kids and it's not just happening (in NSW),” he said, the pain of his loss still raw.
He and wife Jacqueline, along with Mark and Ann New, Karen Eveleigh and Maria Bolt-King, have set up a driving school called LADS (Learn About Driving Skills), where teens can learn not only the road rules, but the simple basic things, like how to change a tyre.
He urges all parents to impose their own age restrictions on their sons and daughters.
Judge Charteris said his own son was barred from driving until he was 19.
“There's an enormous percentage of young men who have done stupid things in cars that don't have this catastrophic result,” he said.
“Why couldn't he have taken that corner at 80km/h?
“Those boys would be alive today.”
The driver in this case remained either stoically or defiantly quiet, depending on the observer, throughout the court proceedings.
He said he was heartbroken, but it was the words of his friends and local pastor that revealed his secret to the court - he wished he had died as well.
Judge Charteris, in handing down the sentence, said there were no winners.
Time will tell if this particular tragedy can spark meaningful change.
“.... because teenagers don't believe it will happen to them.”