The front page of The Northern Star 20 years ago tomorrow shows the sheer horror of the Cowper bus crash, which killed 21 people and injured 22 other passengers.
The front page of The Northern Star 20 years ago tomorrow shows the sheer horror of the Cowper bus crash, which killed 21 people and injured 22 other passengers.

Highway inaction disgusts coroner

A FORMER NSW coroner has described the NSW Government's two decade failure to complete a dual carriageway on the Pacific Highway as 'disgraceful'.

Kevin Waller, who conducted the inquest into the Cowper bus crash, spoke out from his Sydney home on the eve of the 20th anniversary of what was Australia's worst road crash - surpassed only by the Kempsey bus crash three months later. He also led the inquest into that tragedy.

On Friday October 20, 1989, 21 people were killed and 22 injured when an amphetamine-fuelled driver crossed the double centre lines at 4am in his semi-trailer on the Pacific Highway at Cowper, north of Grafton.

The high-speed impact literally sheared off the driver's side of the bus, killing most of the sleeping passengers on that side instantly.

At the time, hardened emergency service workers called it the worst carnage they'd ever seen.

While Mr Waller's recommendations initiated a radical and unprecedented overhaul of the heavy transport industry, he was bitterly disappointed successive governments had ignored his first and foremost finding.

The retired coroner said the necessity of the dual carriageway was obvious to everybody, but government was still pussyfooting around squabbling over who should pay for what.

“I feel very angry about it. The Government just can't organise itself,” he said.

State Clarence MP Steve Cansdell agreed, stressing that Cowper was still listed as a fatigue zone and there was an urgent need for dual carriageway right up the coast.

“They've put in an overtaking lane a couple of kilometres either side of the Cowper crash site and that's it,” he said, describing the Government's efforts as 'window dressing'.

“There's been a lot of talk going on - and a lot more deaths.

“Three years ago I rode my pushbike from Woodburn to Grafton and stopped at each and every cross along the route. That really brought it home. There's been many more deaths and many more crosses since then.

“I think the heads of the RTA and several ministers should go and have a look for themselves to get their priorities right.

“When you read notes like 'we miss you daddy' you realise the impact it has on the community.

“There's been too much talk - it's time to get out and get it done.”

Following the Kempsey inquest, Mr Waller re-endorsed the Cowper inquest findings, and the NSW and Federal governments committed to complete the project by 2006.

According to the NRMA three years past that deadline, less than 50 per cent of the highway has been upgraded to dual carriageway.

Doubts are emerging about the current 2016 deadline agreed to by the Federal and State governments. Wendy Machin, NRMA president of motoring and services, has demanded both governments re-commit to it.

“Residents along this key route have heard enough about inquiries, reports, investigations and surveys regarding road improvements. They deserve action, not promises,” she said.

“This road is the major AusLink corridor between Sydney and Brisbane. Planning approval has been obtained for a number of sections on the NSW North Coast and it is essential the remaining work be expedited as quickly as possible to achieve the maximum safety economic benefit.”

Transport Minister David Campbell said yesterday his thoughts went out to those who lost loved ones in the Cowper tragedy and that the government was working towards completing the duel carriageway, but did not give a time frame for completion.

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