Story transcripts

Driving Blind

Friday, November 9, 2012

Reporter: Michael Usher
Producer: Howard Sacre

Right now, a young driver - probably a man - is about to make a potentially lethal decision.

He's blind drunk and he knows it. But he's going to get behind the wheel of his car anyway.

The terrifying thing is he's probably done it before. And, worse still, there are others in the car in search of a good time.

Gaol, stiff fines, the constant scare campaigns - nothing, it seems, can stop this stupidity.

The result is carnage. A rising toll of young people killed and seriously injured.

And behind the appalling statistics are shattered families. Look into the eyes of Ebony Dunsworth's parents and, like us, you'll despair.

See an extended interview with Judge Frank Gucciardo of the Victorian County Court here.

Full transcript:

STORY – MICHAEL USHER: This was the last thing Ebony Dunsworth would ever see – the backseat view of an out-of-control car, and a serial drunk driver refusing to slow down. In fact, he sped up?

HELEN: Yep.

MICHAEL USHER: And in that one moment your lives changed forever?

HELEN: Yep, and so did hers.

MICHAEL USHER: Ebony was a sporty, high-spirited, 16-year-old. She’s the latest victim of Australia’s worst kind of drivers – those who repeatedly get drunk and get behind the wheel. 30,000 of them are charged every year. When you learn that the driver had a terrible record - a terrible record - how did you react to that?

HELEN: I was angry, um, dumbfounded that anybody could be so – well, in a way callous, and have so much disregard and respect for the law. He just had no respect and just didn’t care.

MICHAEL USHER: Timothy Watson, a 23-year-old house painter, had been convicted for DUI twice before. This time, had a blood-alcohol reading of 0.139. For Ebony’s mum Helen, and stepdad Craig, his actions were tantamount to murder. Because this wasn’t one reckless night where it all went wrong? He had done this before.

HELEN: Done it before, yep. And if this hadn’t happened that night, he’d still be doing it.

FRANK: The impact of alcohol, in our courts, I think can be rightly called epidemic. You were quite intoxicated. Had a stubby in your hand.

MICHAEL USHER: Judge Frank Gucciardo sentenced Timothy Watson to jail for more than 10 years.

FRANK: You reached speeds of 150 kilometres an hour, up to 180.

MICHAEL USHER: He’s so concerned about Australia’s alcoholic culture, that he did something judges almost never do – invited us to his chambers to speak out about it.

FRANK: I think we’ve all grown up with the idea that it’s just a quaint thing that Aussies get up to in their spare time. And I’m not saying that it isn’t. But the ugliness of it is something that we put aside as being funny or, um, as just one of those things that happens when you drink alcohol. I think that’s the thing that we’ve got to be speaking about – that, that we’re more brutalised by the effect of alcohol, rather than entertained by it.

MICHAEL USHER: There was plenty of alcohol on that deadly Saturday night in Melbourne.

DANIEL: It was just meant to be a bit of a fun night, you know? No one was meant to get hurt.

MICHAEL USHER: Daniel Gibson was one of four passengers in the back of that ill-fated car as Watson sped through Melbourne’s outer suburbs. Holding on next to him was his good friend Ebony - she’d accepted a lift home from a Saturday night party.

DANIEL: We were all, you know, telling him to slow down and pull over, and thought he would just ignore us all.

MICHAEL USHER: Ebony knew straight away she’d made a terrible mistake. Ebony pleaded with him to slow down, and sent a text message to her friend: “I’m gonna die.”

DANIEL: So, you know, you’re just sitting ducks. You can’t do a thing about it.

MICHAEL USHER: You’re trapped?

DANIEL: Pretty much.

MICHAEL USHER: Police say that by the time they hit this roundabout, the car was travelling at 137 kilometres per hour. The car rolled god knows how many times. Virtually everyone suffered life-threatening injuries. And then there was Ebony. Do you know what happened to Ebony?

HELEN: She was thrown out of the car, the car rolled on top of her. She, um, cause of death was, ah, mechanical asphyxiation.

CRAIG: Mechanical asphyxiation.

HELEN: Which means that she was in a position where she couldn’t breathe. Her actual injuries weren’t life-threatening.

MICHAEL USHER: The car rolled so many times and ended up on her.

HELEN: Yep.

MICHAEL USHER: Good god, that must have been horrendous, to hear those details and to learn of that.

CRAIG: Yeah, it’s uh – yeah, she was a tough kid, and she really didn’t deserve to end up like that. At all.

MICHAEL USHER: For 20 years, road safety campaigns have tried to prevent needless deaths just like Ebony’s. But the blizzard of ads about the dangers of drink-driving have had limited impact. While all other types of road fatalities are falling, crashes caused by repeat drink-drivers just won’t budge. Why is the message not getting through – so many young men drinking and driving?

FRANK: Perhaps we’re missing mentors, really, speaking to young men in an appropriate way. Where, maybe we’re missing messages through work, or school, or fathers not taking responsibilities for speaking to their sons. Whatever’s not happening, we need to make it happen, because, um, this carnage on the road has got to stop.

MICHAEL USHER: Certainly the message didn’t get through to this young man. Daniel Bell killed a young girl when he was blind drunk at the wheel. His blood alcohol level was 0.115. He was a 22-year-old slaughterman in an abattoir in Stawell, Victoria, where most days off were spent getting very drunk.

DANIEL: Every weekend was a, you know, 48 hours of freedom. And you go out and do as much as you could in those 48 hours, before you had to go back to work on the Monday.

MICHAEL USHER: Regardless of the consequences.

DANIEL: You just go as hard as hard as you could.

MICHAEL USHER: Going hard. Does that mean getting blind drunk?

DANIEL: Ah, it’s at times, yes.

MICHAEL USHER: One night, after a bender of cannabis and lots of grog, Daniel was driving a group of friends between parties. The crash was all too sadly similar to the one that killed Ebony. A drunken group of young people, cruising between parties on a country road – the speeding car rolled, spilling passengers as it went, and a 16-year-old girl was killed instantly. It seems a never-ending story – young teenagers getting into cars driven by reckless fools in their early twenties, who think they’re bullet-proof. Young men like Daniel Bell, who spent four years behind bars, where he had a lot of time to reflect on his crime. You were in jail, but you were alive. Your passenger wasn’t.

DANIEL: That’s right. Mmmhmm. That’s - makes you think that – um, I’ve – I mean, I, I’ve got to do something now. I have to make sure that I do the right thing.

MICHAEL USHER: But you knew the warnings, you knew the risks. Why did you do it?

DANIEL: I’ve asked myself that a lot and, um, I just think it - that you didn’t believe it was going to happen. You’d – it’s going to happen to the bloke next door, or that happens to someone else.

MICHAEL USHER: Mark, what is going on inside these young men’s minds?

MARK: They make poor decisions, they have poor impulse control, they have poor judgement. Add that to alcohol, which impairs your reaction times when it comes to driving a motor vehicle, and you have a recipe for disaster.

MICHAEL USHER: Mark Kelly is the man problem drink drivers are sent to on the last stop before jail. The former Victorian policeman delivers education programmes for repeat offenders.

MARK: We always thought this generation would be better than the previous generation. Well, that’s not showing up in the stats. We’re actually finding that around about 23% of young drivers still on P-plates are drinking and driving.

MICHAEL USHER: And part of the problem for every age group is simply understanding what a standard drink is. Now, to my thinking, these are two standard drinks.

MARK: And it’s fair to think that way. Because this is what’s served to you in a restaurant, or in a hotel. The beer is full strength, and that is a standard drink. The red wine is 150 ml, and that’s not a standard drink. And that line is actually a caterers’ mark that indicates 150 ml, so you’ve actually got 1.5 standard drinks in that drink there.

MICHAEL USHER: More than two million Australians have been caught by random breath tests – but this police operation is targeting DUI in a whole new way. A special detection system screens number plates for problem drink drivers who have lost their license, and those who keep thumbing their nose at the law. In some states, like Victoria, courts are even ordering hard-core drink drivers to install alcohol interlock devices, which Mark Kelly says are crucial to reducing problem drink driving.

MARK: The device demands a test before you actually start the car, you can’t start the car without having a test. And we have about 1,000 clients at the moment, who have gone through the programme, who have had interlocks. And they all come out the other end saying, “Well I hated the thing, but it actually stopped me drinking and driving, and it actually trained me to a degree to change my lifestyle.”

MICHAEL USHER: Someone like you can drill into the mind of a drink driver. How do we change their mentality? How do we stop them being idiots?

DANIEL: Just leave the car at home. Just separate the drinking from the driving. You can go out, go - go as hard as you like, just leave the car at home. If you have to travel, get a taxi. Organise all this stuff before you go out and you’re not going to have any dramas.

MICHAEL USHER: Ebony Dunsworth’s family has just marked the first anniversary of her death. She was killed as a result of Timothy Watson’s defiant drink driving – his repeated disrespect for the law, and, ultimately, the lives of others. I would imagine the last thing you want to do is jail a man for 10 years, but what message does that send?

FRANK: I hope it sends a message that these laws are fair dinkum, and to let people know that this is a public reckoning of what’s happened, but it can never provide enough comfort and closure for the families.

MICHAEL USHER: One minute you’re expecting your daughter to walk through the door, the next, the police are in your lounge room?

HELEN: It’s just like the ads on the TV. And I thought they were gonna say that Ebony was in Maroondah Hospital or something, and then they said that she didn’t make it. I loved her more than life itself, and she’s not here. And those two things are never gonna change, so how does it get better?

MICHAEL USHER: I don’t think anyone can tell you that.

HELEN: No.

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