opinion

OPINION: Drink driving is a choice. After the Oatlands tragedy, let's vow not to make it.

In Oatlands, a suburb in Sydney’s northwest, a makeshift memorial has been created by the side of a road. Flowers, cards and soft toys have been gently laid to mark the spot where four children took their last breath on Saturday evening.

All four were family; siblings Antony, Angelina and Sienna Geagea, aged 13, 12 and nine, and their 11-year-old cousin, Veronique Sakr. The group were on their way to the local shops to buy ice cream when, just before 8pm, they were fatally struck by a ute. Three other children were injured, one critically.

The man behind the wheel, a 29-year-old local, allegedly returned a blood alcohol reading three times the legal limit.

Watch: The father of the three children killed in Oatlands has a message for drivers.

Video by 7 News

The details of the tragedy have embedded themselves, not just in members of the Sydney community, but people all around the country. Certainly because of the pure tragedy of four young lives lost, the empathy for loved ones who’ve been left with only memories and empty beds. But also because of the element of circumstance; the ‘sliding-doors’ and painful what-ifs of it all.

Their deaths were freakish. A case of happening to be in that place in that moment, when that man, in that car, left the road in that particular way.

That tragic tangle of circumstance is something dozens of people will have to agonise over for the rest of their lives. The victims’ friends and family, the traumatised witnesses who rushed to help and, yes, the driver and his family.

In the deaths of these beautiful children and the 20 charges (including manslaughter, high-range drink driving) levelled by police, this man has been confronted with the utterly devastating outcome of his alleged actions that day.

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And now we must confront it, too.

Because it’s clear that plenty of Australians are undeterred by the potential consequences — legal, human, or otherwise — of getting behind the wheel after drinking.

OATLANDS-kids
The four children fatally struck in Oatlands.

In NSW, there were 56 fatal crashes involving alcohol in 2018 (the most recent year for which complete data is available), and a total of 18,041 people appeared before the courts for drink-driving offences. And that's to say nothing of all those who made it home unscathed and undetected.

It's not a matter of education or awareness.

We all know what happens to our license if the breathalyser clocks over 0.05 BAC. We all know that, with alcohol in our system, we'll be slower to react, more likely to take risks and less able to judge speed and distance. Yet we've all had — or even been — that friend/colleague/relative who ponders, 'I'll be alright to drive, yeah?'

It's difficult to imagine that any of those people pulled out onto the road consciously intent on harming another human being.

So what's behind it? Arrogance? Selfishness? Nieveity? I'd argue that depends on the individual. But regardless, it's right there, in that gaping chasm between action and consequence, that our alcohol-related road toll lies.

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Leila Geagea, the mother of three of the victims, at the roadside memorial. Image: AAP.

Authorities are constantly searching for ways to bridge it.

Some have called for the legal blood alcohol concentration for all NSW drivers to be lowered to zero, in line with those on a provisional license. According to the World Health Organisation, just 22 countries have such a ban. But not only is the voting public here highly unlikely to support it, some researchers suggest such legislation is unlikely to influence irresponsible high-range drink driving behaviour.

And so, as it stands, it's a matter of responsibly wielding our agency. Just as we're expected to do with fatigue — another major contributor to the road toll.

We, as individuals, can actively choose to consider the lesson in tragedies like that in Oatlands over the weekend.

We can choose to consider the potential real-life consequences of recklessly endangering other people's lives for the sake of our own convenience.

We can choose not to view 0.05 BAC as some kind of threshold to, at best, dance with and, at worst, totally ignore.

We can choose to never get behind the wheel after drinking.

So why don't we?

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