“Take deep breaths everyone…” Chris Braden’s words are muffled. There’s an edge of panic to his voice - the vehicle roof is pressed to his face, completely obscuring his vision, and he is frantically trying to feel for the door handle.
“I’m Chris Braden. It’s Friday. 4.30. So I’m quite coherent. If you can just help me…”
In fact it is exactly 4.26:47 on the first day of September 2017.
It seems a miracle the dash-camera is still recording. The video is blank, also obscured by the crushed car roof, but the audio remains working and the clock keeps ticking by as it records Chris’s efforts to communicate with the small crowd of shocked motorists who’ve gathered at the crash site.
Just seven seconds of footage, recorded a minute earlier, reveal another miracle. A series of repeating images – of asphalt, then blue sky, then a gum tree, asphalt-blue sky-gum tree, asphalt-blue sky-gum tree - over and over. For seven seconds the camera records what can be seen through a smashed windscreen as the vehicle rolls end-over-end.
It is incredibly violent, confronting and the miracle is this: Chris Braden survived.
Roll back another minute and the dash-cam records Chris’ point-of-view as he drives along a rural road just west of the outskirts of Bendigo. Visibility is good and so is the scenery; recent rain has turned the countryside green and the first day of spring has delivered a cloudless day. The distinctive voice of ABC presenter Nicole Chvastek can be heard on the car radio, taking talkback calls.
Chris is headed home from his work as a Recreation and Land Operations Officer with Goulburn-Murray Water. He’s been with GMW for the best part of 20 years and believes he has a dream job, helping to manage some of the state’s most popular inland water storages at Lake Eppalock, Cairn Curran and Laanecoorie reservoirs.
His job is a natural fit. As a younger man Chris skippered the Eildon Explorer commercial vessel while hiring speed boats to holiday-makers. After joining GMW he worked at Lake Eildon and other water storages before being permanently based at Lake Eppalock in 2011.
Now, work is only a 30-minute drive from his home in Bendigo where he has settled with wife Suzanne and son Roley.
The route is direct and one he’s driven thousands of times before. Strathfieldsaye Rd is a two-lane main road intersecting with numerous smaller country roads. This includes an intersection with Longlea Lane, which turns into Axe Creek Rd where it crosses Strathfieldsaye Rd.
Whether coming or going to work, Chris is wary of this intersection and its history of bad accidents. A church, some trees and a small hill on either corner can obscure cars approaching the intersection.
“So coming from Bendigo there’s poor visibility and coming back it’s the same,” Chris said.
“I generally drive with the cruise control and when I tap the brake, the cruise goes off and I slow a bit as I pass through this intersection.”
On September 1, Chris was taking a work vehicle home as he was on call over the weekend. The Ford Ranger was brand new, with just 600km on the odometer.
“A few weeks earlier my in-laws had given me a dash-cam so I chucked it in the Ranger when I left work, not thinking I’d need it that night.”
On approaching the intersection Chris recalls taking his normal precautions but can’t remember two vehicles on the right. The dash-cam picks them up slowing for the intersection when, inexplicably, the lead Commodore accelerates onto Strathfieldsaye Rd – Chris veers slightly but there’s no time or space to avoid a collision.
The car’s front end tore away, leaving the Commodore stationary, otherwise intact and its driver shaken but not seriously hurt. The steel tray on Chris’ utility however, took the force of the impact and sent his vehicle tumbling through the sky.
“It lifted the car and we went over diagonally,” he said. “I do remember trying to count the number of times I rolled.
“I don’t think I lost consciousness but then I don’t recall the airbags going off. I do remember the sheer violence of the accident.
“When it happened it’s not like you think, “I’m about to die’,” Chris said. “You’re just there for the ride – I didn’t even have time to swear!”
Or time to breathe, it seems, from the evidence of the dash-cam. When the vehicle settles the screen goes ominously blank and the audio is deathly silent. Then you hear Chris let out a loud groan as he struggles to draw breath.
“My next thought was `Smoke!’ which turned out to be powder released by the airbags,” Chris said. “But I didn’t know that. I was able to move my hands and feet and I just wanted out of that vehicle so bad.”
During his years at Eildon, Chris was a volunteer for the local ambulance service. He knows he should not have moved from the wreckage, for risk of further injury, until the emergency services arrived.
“I have also seen what happens when a car catches fire so I spoke to those guys (who had gathered at the accident scene), told them my name and that I was coherent, and had them ease me out before the ambos arrived,” Chris said.
“When I got out there was this overwhelming feeling of relief. I just thought, ‘I am so lucky’.”
Chris Braden suffered a gash to his head, whiplash and back pain. Recuperation will mean a slow return to work but he is expected to fully recover. He bears no ill will to the other driver who, had she entered the intersection a second earlier, would have been killed rather than walk away unscathed.
Chris wanted to tell his story for colleagues at GMW, who clock up many hundreds of kilometres across northern Victoria every day, as well as everyone on our regional roads. Here are some key points for drivers to consider:
- Consider a dash-cam. Chris said reviewing the footage, rather than being harrowing, has helped him to come to terms with the accident and avoid any second-guessing of what could have been done.
- Five-star ANCAP ratings are gold. Chris was driving a brand new vehicle with leading safety technology. He is now replacing an older-model family sedan to get a five-star rating: “If I had been in that older car I would not be here today.”
- Understand Emergency Assistance. Chris’s work vehicle “called” 000 immediately upon the air bags deploying. “Now, I’ll also have my smart phone set to allow 000 to access my position via GPS.”
- Talk to your mates. If there are known blackspots where your work colleagues travel, highlight these areas among staff.
- Headlights on. “I actually had them on however this costs nothing to do and it’s a simple action to make you are more visible on the road.”
- Secure your belongings. Chris’s lap-top computer was tucked in a bag in the rear-seat footwell but was still destroyed in the accident. “It could have become a missile so I now secure such items with a rear seatbelt.”
- Drive defensively. Being safe is up to all road users. “Sometimes you can be lucky but luck is not something I would want to depend on.”
A note from the Managing Director:
“We are just so lucky Chris got through this horrific event,” Managing Director Pat Lennon said.
“Our staff are everything to this business and I thank Chris for sharing his experience with his work colleagues. We can all learn from his thoughts.
“We place a high priority on vehicle safety however country roads can be hazardous,” Pat said.
“Chris’ accident emphasises the need to keep on driving down the number of kilometres we do for work.
“We’ll soon be posting on Workplace and our Intranet a video of Chris with images from his dash-cam, which was in use at the time of his accident.
“It’s a little confronting and staff may choose not to view it. However it is effective in bringing home some of the key safety messages Chris wants to share among colleagues.”
“Again, my thanks to Chris.”