Former Ballina High School student Michael Buttenshaw sat in his wheelchair in front of 500 local year 11 students on Tuesday and told a chilling tale.
Ive come here to warn you, he said. To let you know what happened to me.
Michael was a presenter at the annual RRISK seminars (Reduce Risk Increase Student Knowledge), which were held this week at Southern Cross University, with 1500 local students attending over the three days. The seminars aim to encourage young people to develop sound decision-making skills to help them make less risky choices in relation to driving, alcohol, drug use and partying.
Michaels speech was slurred and at times difficult to understand due to the massive head injury he received in a car accident where he was driving unlicensed and under the influence of alcohol and marijuana. Two girls who were passengers in the car were both killed.
If these words stop just one of you from experiencing what I have been through, or helps you keep a friend alive, then this will have been worth it, he said.
Michael spoke about being a popular student who liked his subjects and did well at school. He had a full social life with plenty of friends and went to parties, pubs and nightclubs using fake ID.
The night of the accident he spoke of drinking heavily and smoking copious cones.
It was looking like a good night, he said. But it turned out to be the worst night of my life.
He borrowed a friends car even though they told him he was too drunk to drive, and despite the fact hed only ever ridden a motorbike before. Nobody in the car was wearing a seatbelt when he lost control.
Both girls riding in the car with him died and he was rushed to Lismore Base Hospital where he was given little hope of survival.
He spent six months in a coma and then 12 months in rehabilitation where he had to re-learn basic life skills like showering, going to the loo and dressing himself. He has no control of his left arm and leg, has memory problems and now has only 40 per cent lung capacity.
He said he became extremely angry and frustrated after the accident and was sent 300kms away from home to a behavioural management unit where he spent the next three years.
He now resides back in Ballina, where he lives as independently as possible.
My old friends drifted away and I dont get a chance to meet new friends, he said. If I could rewind time I would absolutely not go through all this again.
Year 11 students from St Johns College Woodlawn, Gabby Corrigan and Rae Caldwell, attended the seminars. They are both on their L-plates and said although they had heard most of the information before, they did learn a few new things and it reinforced what they already knew.
They said there were always going to be young drivers who felt they were invincible and believed it wasnt going to happen to them.
Theres nothing more you can do except educate us, which they are doing extremely well, said Gabby. We are the most informed age group. It just comes down to personal choice, whether to take risks or not.
They both said the recent tragedy where four Kadina High School students were killed in a car accident had made them more aware of the risks of driving, however, they felt the media was so saturated with stories of road fatalities it had somehow normalised it.
We see it on the news all the time, said Rae. Its not till it hits close to home that it really affects people.
They said they had both been in cars with friends where they felt nervous and edgy about the way they were driving, but had been able to tell their friends to slow down. They said generally people were more inclined to show off immediately after getting their licenses.
Theres people who I dont go in cars with, who would probably not slow down if I said something, said Rae. They would speed up instead.
They said cracking down on P-platers was not the answer but felt compulsory defensive driving courses and lessons with an instructor would be a good idea.
I dont think restricting P-platers to just one passenger is any good, said Rae. People will rebel against it. They will just want to get somewhere quicker if theyve (illegally) got five people in the car.
Or not wear seatbelts, because people are down on the floor where they cant be seen, added Gabby.
Josh McCaffery and Ben Gooley from St Marys College in Casino said they felt P-platers were being given a bad name and it was ultimately counter-productive.
Its like saying nobody drink when youre under 18, said Ben. Its not constructive. The media attention on P-platers is not constructive.
It will escalate into something that will get out of hand, said Josh. Because of what is being reflected on us as drivers. By telling people they shouldnt speed, it just makes them do it more.
The boys said peer pressure and the desire to show off were the main reasons for young drivers going too fast.
They estimated around 35 per cent of P-platers would speed, however, they then said they thought around 70 per cent of boys would speed.
Not as in 170kms per hour, said Josh. But they wont sit on 90.
Ben said people whose jobs depended on their licenses were more likely to drive better.
So what can be done?
More things like this (RRISK), said Josh. We could also have something at school to make us more aware.
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