Reporter: Tara Brown
Producer: Steven Burling
It can happen in an instant.
The police make a split-second decision to give chase — a young driver, high on adrenalin, takes a crazy risk and an unsuspecting motorist strays right into the middle of it all with tragic consequences.
A quarter of all those who die in police pursuits aren't hoons, they're ordinary people who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Without a doubt, it's a tough call for the officers involved — do they let suspected criminals speed away or do they chase them down at all costs?
For the shattered families left behind, there's only one answer. No crime is worth the risk to innocent lives.
The local community is trying to raise funds for Rhiannon Govan’s recovery and also to assist Aidan Govan — if you would also like to help you can donate to:
Account Name: Rhiannon and Aidan Govan
National Australia Bank
Account Number: 12-596-1104
STORY – TARA BROWN: There's nothing quite so brutal, confronting, so final as a head-on collision at high speed.
RADIO: There's been a huge accident, westbound on the Princes Freeway.
TARA BROWN: In one car, a couple on an early morning drive, in the other, a man fleeing police. Both drivers died instantly. And trapped in the wreckage, next to her husband Jason, was Rhiannon Govan.
RHIANNON: I regained consciousness in the car and there was just people everywhere. And I started screaming as I turned round, I saw Jason. I knew he was gone.
TARA BROWN: Jason was 26 when he died that morning in January this year. He and Rhiannon had only been married for two years, and 18-month-old son Aiden was their entire world. They were a very happy young family.
RHIANNON: I'm just grateful that Aiden wasn't in the car - because he'd be gone too. Aiden is now my reminder of Jason.
TARA BROWN: With multiple fractures, deep lacerations and torn tendons, Rhiannon was in hospital for months. Still wheelchair-bound, she now needs rehabilitation to regain her independence. So, right now you still can't walk?
TARA BROWN: You can't pick up your son?
TARA BROWN: You can't wash yourself?
TARA BROWN: You're incapacitated?
TARA BROWN: But Rhiannon's physical pain is nothing to the anger she feels - devastated her husband was the innocent victim of a police pursuit. It's very hard to watch somebody going through the amount of grief you're suffering. But clearly you feel very very strongly about this issue.
RHIANNON: I don't want anybody else to go through this. It's just the worst thing that could ever possibly happen. Something really needs to be done to protect everybody on the roads.
TARA BROWN: It happens far too often. Just here in Victoria, six people died in police pursuits from December to January this year. Do you in your position say what is going on? What has gone wrong?
RHIANNON: Yes, I sit back and I reflect. I seek advice. I seek counsel and guidance from people.
TARA BROWN: Victoria's Deputy Police Commissioner, Kieran Walshe, is sympathetic, but adamant pursuits must continue.
KIERAN: What's the consequences if we had a 'no pursuit' policy? All we're doing then is sort of saying to the criminal element, the negligent and unruly driver element, that you can do what you like on the roads - the police aren't going to intercept you.
TARA BROWN: But late last month, they went too far for many – when they ordered a dozen motorists, including this driver, to form a roadblock on the freeway, to stop a man they were chasing at speeds of up to 200km/hour He did plough into the roadblock. Luckily, no one was killed.
KIERAN: Look, without trying to deflect, you know, the responsibility of Victoria police and the responsibility of our members, it's the driver who takes the decision to take flight.
TARA BROWN: I accept that those drivers have made the decision to speed, but do you accept that the decision by police to chase them makes them go faster, makes them take greater risks?
KIERAN: In some circumstances that may well be the case. I understand that, but again, you know, where is our responsibility to the community here? Where's our responsibility to other road users?
TARA BROWN: Is there any place for police chases in your view?
RHIANNON: No, there has to be another alternative. There has to be, because people are dying on the roads for no reason.
TARA BROWN: It was the 21st of January this year, and Jason and Rhiannon were out enjoying a weekend drive - their first without baby Aidan. But meanwhile here in Morwell, two hours east of Melbourne – events were unfolding that would destroy this unsuspecting family in an instant. Police pull over a driver allegedly for speeding. But when they approach the high powered V8, the driver takes off, and they give chase.
TARA BROWN: As required the police call in the chase to their incident controller.
OFFICER: He's travelling 150 km an hour -
TARA BROWN: But as the driver crosses to the wrong side of the road and accelerates away the police are told to terminate their chase.
OFFICER: He's on the wrong side? Terminate pursuit. Terminate pursuit.
TARA BROWN: They stop the chase, but less than a minute later there's terrible news.
OFFICER: There has been a huge accident westbound on the Princes Freeway.
TARA BROWN: The man police were chasing had escaped down the Princes Freeway in the wrong direction, narrowly missing oncoming traffic. Rhiannon and Jason weren't so lucky. When the two cars reached a blind hill they were closing in at more than 250km/hour. There was no time for Jason to react.
RHONDA: The police rang me Saturday morning. He did say it was a head-on. He was just speeding, there was a police chase, and then he hit the kids.
TARA BROWN: Rhiannon's parents, Rhonda and Rob Thomas, were looking after Aiden that weekend - happy to give Jason and Rhiannon some time away. What sort of a couple were they? Oh, very passionate, very mushy. But yeah, great mates.
TARA BROWN: Is this all a bit too hard?
RHONDA: It's just a shame.
TARA BROWN: The way the accident happened, does that also contribute to your grief?
ROB: I would say it is, because it's just out of the blue. If, you know, Jason went to sleep and did it, well you know it's in his hands, but when it's taken out of your hands and you're just an innocent bystander, I think it is, yeah.
MARIE: It was heartbreaking at the funeral to watch my mother crying at the casket and my father saying that he'd give anything to swap places with my brother.
TARA BROWN: It was Marie's brother who ploughed into Jason and Rhiannon's car that morning. No matter the circumstance of his death, he too has a shattered family grieving his loss.
TARA BROWN: Do you think your brother is responsible in anyway?
TARA BROWN: So, that decision to go down the ramp the wrong way, to travel up the highway the wrong way?
MARIE: I think that showed he was panicked and in fear.
TARA BROWN: He's not at all accountable for that?
MARIE: I don't think so.
TARA BROWN: We'll never know why Marie's brother fled police - and a Coronial inquest is yet to find out why police chased him when it's claimed they knew who he was, and where he lived. When that decision by your brother was made to flee, and by the police to chase, who do you hold responsible for that accident?
MARIE: The police. They need to be held accountable for the deaths of two people. That morning two people lost their lives, and there's nothing that anybody could ever say or do that could justify that outcome.
RHIANNON: I blame the person who was running, but I do believe that the police do have a hand in this because they gave him the adrenaline to run.
TARA BROWN: In that case, where this man was well- known to police, he had a personalised number plate, was it necessary to chase him?
KIERAN: The member's decisions, the activities that took place - all that will be tested in the Coronial inquiry. It's a tragic outcome. It really is.
TARA BROWN: There are at least 10 police pursuits a day across the country. Police say it's the hardest and quickest decision they have to make. And it's the same around the world - particularly in the US, where each year thousands are killed or injured in high speed pursuits like this. No one wants it to end this way, and so police are turning to alternatives. In the US, civilian versions of the military drone are in use. These eyes-in-the-sky safely track offenders from kilometres away, and can stay in the air for up to 24 hours at a time, at a fraction of the cost of a chopper. In Australia, police are considering a system where they can broadcast on all radio frequencies warning drivers in the area of a pursuit in progress.
COMPUTER: Police pursuit in progress. Please clear the roadway.
KIERAN: 64% of pursuits last three minutes or less, you know, it's very, very difficult to look at other opportunities. But that doesn't mean to say we're not looking.
TARA BROWN: No-one is more desperate for those alternatives than the families of those who have died as a result of police pursuits.
MARIE: My heart absolutely breaks for Rhiannon, and for the little boy as well. So yeah, the accident shouldn't have happened. And my hope is that no other family
Has to follow in our footsteps, that nobody else loses somebody that they love and that they care about as a result of a police pursuit.
TARA BROWN: Isn't he a great motivation to get out of this chair?
RHIANNON: He is.
TARA BROWN: To get better?
RHIANNON: He is a very, very good motivator to get up and I'll just start chasing him around soon.
TARA BROWN: Rhiannon desperately wants to hold Aiden just as she wants her old life back. But as a widow at just 29 all she can do for now is grieve. Are you expected to heal completely?
TARA BROWN: So your body will get better?
TARA BROWN: What about your heart?
RHIANNON: Never. My soul is now inside out. I lost everything. I'd do anything to have him back.