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Accidents are not accidents

Car crashes can be horrendous.

A car crash is horrendous when you are less than five metres from the impact zone and holding the hand of your four-year-old son. The noise is fearsome, the scene is confusion, and the aftermath is ugly, angry and - for the youngster - more than enough to reduce you to tears. And there is always blame and retribution.

"It was a green light. I'm sure it was a green light," says the car driver who is most in the wrong. "What happened? I had a green light," says the young motorcyclist who has just bounced up off the bitumen to survey the wreck that had been his Kawasaki pride and joy.

This is the closest I have been as a witness to a real-world collision, although I've been up close to a whole range of motorsport impacts over the years and also watched in fear and amazement at a wide range of car company crash tests. The first time I see a barrier test, with Mazda in Japan in the 1980s, I am completely horrified.

The car rolls down a set of tracks towards a solid brick wall with almost no noise, until the giant 'whump' as it is reduced to scrap in a couple of milliseconds. There is no braking, no attempt to swerve, none of the survival moves you expect from your experience on the road.

But the worst, by far, is a car-to-car crash at Honda that shows what happens when two vehicles go head-to-head with losers on both sides. The violence is almost unbelievable and I wonder how anyone can survive this sort of impact.

These are the sorts of collisions that form the bedrock of the Australasian New-Car Assessment Program, which awards safety stars based on a car's ability to protect its occupants - and, increasingly, pedestrians - in a crash. In future there will be more and more emphasis on technologies that allow a car to second-guess the driver in a potential emergency, even applying the brakes and priming the airbags when an impact is unavoidable, but right now it's mostly about the car's safety cell, impact barriers, force paths, seatbelts and airbags.

There are no airbags in this week's impact, as the motorcycle fires straight into the side of the car that has suddenly appeared dead-ahead of the rider. The bike's front wheel and suspension become the crumple zone, the rider's helmet is the force path, and there is barely any impact damage on the car.

Thankfully, no-one is injured, the pride of the two combatants is quickly restored, and the police, ambulance and tow truck arrive to mop up the mess. There will be insurance claims and time without vehicles, but that's in the future. Right now, I'm left wondering about the causes of what too many people describe as 'accidents'. This might have been 'an undesirable or unfortunate happening', as the Macquarie Dictionary describes an accident, but there are clear causes from the  red-light runner to a bike rider who was too keen to plug a gap in the traffic.
I prefer words like crash, collision, impact and incident.

Very little happens on the road that is truly accidental, as I remember learning from the late Peter Wherrett - a master communicator who polished that craft as he passed on the message as a safe driving instructor - the weekend after I qualified for my provisional license. I credit Wherrett with my survival through the dangerous early years of driving, as well as my safe-and-sensible approach to riding motorcycles, which continues to this day.

As I soothe my son through the aftermath of his first truly nasty life experience, I'm promising myself - once again - that he's going to get the best survival training I can find, and he's going to get it well ahead of any coming-of-age birthday celebrations or license test.

Then I lean down and whisper quietly to him, "Now do you understand why I don't want you to ride motorbikes?". He is just as quiet but just as serious when he replies "Yes daddy. Crashes are bad, I don't like them."

This reporter is on Twitter: @paulwardgover