The tragic history of Yellow Ribbon Week

By Wade O'Leary on 09 May 2017
Harbour Bridge lit up for Yellow Ribbon Week
National Road Safety Week (NRSW) honours those who have lost their lives on Australia’s roads by campaigning to reduce the number and impact of crashes due to unsafe roads and driving.

The Sydney Harbour Bridge was lit up with yellow light to bring attention to the Yellow Ribbon campaign, which coincides with NRSW and also the fourth UN Global Road Safety Week, while NRMA Patrols and Safer Driving School instructors tied yellow ribbons to their vehicles to spread awareness throughout NSW and the ACT.

But despite the growing size and significance of the event, the crash that sparked the yellow ribbon tradition is a sad and deeply personal story that summarises the dangers facing all who use the roads.

Sarah Frazer was 23 years old and on her way to Wagga Wagga to commence university studies in February 2012 when her car broke down on the Hume Highway south of Mittagong.

She managed to come to a stop beside the road despite the loss of engine, steering and braking power assistance but did so on a section of the Hume that had a breakdown lane only 1.5 metres wide – less than the width of a typical vehicle and half the national standard.

This meant that her car was protruding onto driving lanes hosting traffic moving at 100km/h and faster.

Sarah called the NRMA and was attended by a patrol, who in turn called out local tow-truck driver Geoffrey Clark.

As Sarah waited while Mr Clark hitched her vehicle to his, truck driver Kaine Daniel Barnett approached from behind.

It was later estimated in court that Barnett must have been distracted for between eight and 11 seconds to have not seen the car and tow-truck from up to 300 metres away: crash investigators deduced that he saw them at the last second and attempted to swerve away but ploughed into Sarah’s car.

Both she and Mr Clark were killed on impact.

Barnett was convicted of dangerous driving causing death and imprisoned but a family still misses their daughter and a widow raises her four sons on her own – all because of the combination of an unsafe road and unsafe driving.

National Road Safety Week is always a sad time but what makes the yellow ribbon commemoration especially hard to bear in recent years is the shocking jump in the road toll.

Fatalities on NSW roads hit their highest rate since 2010 last year, with 34 more deaths so far compared to 2015 and years of gains effectively wiped out.

“2015 was a horrible year for the NSW road toll after a record drop in the number of fatalities in 2014, and unfortunately 2016 was even worse,” NRMA President Kyle Loades said.

“It is everyone’s responsibility to be safe on our roads – from drivers and riders to pedestrians and passengers.”

It is also incumbent on authorities to provide roads that meets safety standards and give motorists every chance to avoid accident and injury.

This is emphasised by the results of the latest NRMA Cost of Crashes report, which finds that fatalities and casualties on NSW roads from 2011 to 2015 have cost the NSW economy $35.7 billion.

This figure represents an eight per cent drop compared to the previous report in 2012 and was driven by a 20 per cent decrease in the number of lives lost on the state’s roads but over the same period, serious injuries increased 4.6 per cent to 61,130 – at a total cost to the community almost $18 billion.

It is for all of these reasons the NRMA supports National Road Safety Week and campaigns relentlessly for improvements in infrastructure, vehicles, regulation and driver behaviour.

These include the hard-fought battle for a fully dual-carriageway Pacific Highway, our key role in the founding of ANCAP and our ongoing research and advocacy in diverse road safety fields including alcohol and drug testing, speed enforcement and driver education.