A near fatal accident as a teenager led Russell White to pursue a lifelong passion for better driver education and improvements in road safety, as Christen Hill discovered.
Like many of us, Russell White’s father taught him to drive. The family car was a three on the tree Holden Kingswood. Like many teenagers he thought he was bullet-proof.
“I’d had my licence about five weeks,” he said. “I ended up coming to a corner, thought I might be going a bit fast and ended up having a fairly sizeable crash.”
While he didn’t know it then, his accident would eventually impact millions of Australians. White, the founder and CEO of the Australian Road Safety Foundation, is regarded as one of the country’s leading road safety advocates.
Fatality Free Friday, a national community based road safety initiative, was his idea.
“It started in 2007 and was just a press release and we put 1500 pairs of shoes on display at Suncorp Stadium,” he said.
“It’s turned into Australia’s only national community-based road safety program and last year we reached 10.6 million people with our message.”
His accident had left White wondering why there wasn’t any post-licence training available. For years it was just a thought. He worked in retail and shopping centre management until meeting Frank Gardner, well known Australian motorsport racing driver and manager.
“I was racing little Geminis at Lakeside in a class that a lot of people start in,” he remembers.
“Frank said we’re looking for instructors, why don’t you come and have a try.”
That was the start of White’s 24-year career in the driver training industry and galvanized his desire to improve road safety. Now a regular media commentator on road safety issues, he’s taken Fatality Free Friday from a simple idea to an annual national event each May.
“If you ask most people who is responsible for road safety they’ll say it’s a government or police problem but in actual fact it’s road users who ultimately hold the key,” he insists.
“Driving is about technique. The little things you do, matter.”
It’s a lesson he’s trying to teach his eldest daughter half-way through her 100 hours of supervised on-road driving before her provisional licence test.
“I’m always concerned with younger drivers on the road. They tend not to scan the road very well,” he says.
With rapid advances in automotive technology claiming to make cars safer than ever White warns now is not the time to become complacent.
“We are on the cusp of autonomous cars on our roads, cars that can literally drive themselves.
“There’s a real risk that as policy makers we start to think eventually these (smart) cars will fix all the problems. They won’t as long as there are human beings involved.”
Last year 1,193 people died on Australian roads. Russell hopes every year that Fatality Free Friday is just that – fatality free.
“If we can do it on one Friday, we can do it every Friday and then 365 days a year.”