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SA Police to continue inquiry into border closure crash

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SA Police say it will now finalise an internal inquiry into its handling of a border checkpoint where a fatal truck crash occurred last year, with a coronial investigation finding “a number of deficiencies” in its COVID-19 border closure management.

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Victorian Coroner Simon McGregor last week published the findings of his coronial investigation into the death of South Australian truck driver Steven Lawrie, who died shortly before 2am on February 11, 2021.

Lawrie was killed when his truck rammed into the back of another truck which was stationary in a six-kilometre-long queue of vehicles waiting on the Western Highway to enter South Australia from Victoria at the Serviceton border checkpoint.

Another stationary truck was hit in the crash as Lawrie’s Volvo prime mover burst into flames.

The coroner found that “unexplained driver error” was the “most likely cause of the crash” and decided not to hold an inquest into the death.

The backlog of vehicles waiting on the highway followed an afternoon COVID-19 announcement from South Australian authorities that the state would shut to Greater Melbourne at midnight, prompting a surge in travellers trying to enter South Australia before the deadline.

Police commissioner Grant Stevens announced after the crash that SAPOL would be holding a “commissioner’s inquiry” to “examine the circumstances in regards to how we’ve been managing our border checkpoints”.

But police set no time frame for the completion of that inquiry which has now dragged on for 15 months, with SAPOL no longer managing South Australia’s borders for public health purposes.

Stevens said earlier this year the inquiry was on hold until the Victorian Coroner made a decision whether to inquest Lawrie’s death.

On Monday, a spokesperson for SA Police said they would now complete the inquiry.

“With the conclusion of the Victorian Coroner’s involvement in this matter SAPOL will finalise the internal Commissioner’s Inquiry,” the spokesperson told InDaily.

“As previously advised, once the review is completed a determination will be made on what information will be made public.”

The Victorian Coroner found the hard border closure with Victoria and “subsequent operation and management of the Serviceton border checkpoint” was “not a causal factor in the fatal collision”.

The coroner instead found that “unexplained driver error” was the most likely cause and said there was “insufficient evidence” that Lawrie was distracted, fell asleep at the wheel or suffered a medical episode.

“On the basis of all the available evidence, Steven had clear visibility along a flat, straight stretch of the Western Highway as he approached the queued traffic,” the coroner’s findings state.

“Further, both the rear hazard indicators as well as the brake lights should have provided sufficient warning in respect of the queued traffic.

“This coronial investigation has failed to identify a precise reason as to why Steven failed to react to the queued traffic and I find, on the balance of probabilities, that unexplained driver error is the cause of the fatal collision resulting in Steven’s passing.”

The coroner did, however, identify “a number of deficiencies” in SAPOL’s communication of the hard border closure to the Victorian Government and the trucking industry, along with issues with its management of the border checkpoint regarding “surge staffing capabilities and management of queuing traffic”.

In a statement to the coronial investigation, SAPOL assistant commissioner Craig Patterson said there was “no direct communication from the Commissioner of South Australia Police to the Victorian Government with respect to the Direction 36 border closure and associated arrangements”.

“There existed no formal SAPOL process which mandated notification to Victoria Police of any changes to border operations that may affect traffic flow,” Patterson’s statement read.

“As a result there was no direct communication from the Border Commander to Victoria Police with respect to the Direction 36 border closure and associated arrangements.”

The coroner found SA Police “relied upon” media engagement to inform the public of the border closure, primarily via a 3:41pm press conference held by police commissioner Stevens and chief public health officer Nicola Spurrier.

Some truck drivers crossing through the checkpoint on the night of the crash indicated to the investigation they weren’t aware the border was closing, although had heard over UHF radio of a long queue at the border.

Assistant commissioner Patterson submitted to the investigation that the “significant backlog” which built up at the Serviceton Checkpoint “exceeded the volume of traffic indicated in a remote location”.

“At the time of the border closure on 11 February 2021 there were no mechanisms implemented to warn approaching traffic specifically of the stationary backlog,” Patterson said.

“The general mechanisms to slow approaching vehicles down and alert them to the need to stop at the Serviceton checkpoint were the TGS (Traffic Guidance Systems) and associated VMS (Variable Messaging Sign), although the queue of traffic at the time of the collision extended beyond the VMS supporting and warning of the TGS which was located approximately 1.3km from the border.”

The coroner found only three police officers were rostered on for the night shift at the border checkpoint on February 11. Two additional officers were deployed once SAPOL became aware of the backlog.

Patterson submitted that there are “practical obstacles that make it impossible for SAPOL to surge greater levels of staff quickly to remote sites”.

The assistant commissioner cited the “lack of available local resources to supplement border checking station personnel” and the long distance from the metropolitan area “which would delay the arrival of surge personnel by at least 3 to 5 hours minimum”.

The coroner said SAPOL instituted a number of reforms to their border management after the night of the crash, including the development of a “trigger plan” which requires SAPOL’s Border Commander to “immediately advise relevant interstate policing jurisdictions of any South Australian border restrictions”.

The plan also requires SAPOL to make assessments about whether police cars are needed to manage border queues.

The coroner concluded that he was “satisfied that SAPOL’s own internal debrief, review and mitigation process has appropriately addressed all relevant issues and that this remediation will render it much less likely that such a situation would repeat itself”.

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