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Road accident prevention with expert Rebecca Ivers

24 November 2014

Rebecca Ivers and motorcycle helmets

Globally, injury is the leading cause of death and disability in young people. Australia is no different when it comes to this awful truth.

Professor Rebecca Ivers (pictured above with some of her motorcycle helmet collection) of the George Institute for Global Health, which is associated with the University of Sydney, is the Director of the Institute’s Injury Division. She and her team of researchers, program directors and delivery staff are world leaders in injury prevention and trauma care.

Their role is to research injury - with an eye to prevention. It’s work that has a lot to do with why Rebecca has the most remarkable collection of motorcycle helmets.

She’s been involved in projects in Asia on motorcycle helmet use, and with WHO (World Health Organisation) on motorcycle safety in low income countries, and it has brought her into contact with some very dodgy headgear.

“There is a big problem with quality. If you’re a policeman enforcing a law around helmet use and you see one of these shiny numbers,” she indicates a helmet that for all intents and purposes looks ‘pretty nice’, “is done up on someone’s head, what are you going to do. It all looks fine. Get the helmet in your hands and you realise they have no foam or energy absorption materials in them. They cost six or seven dollars on the black market, so they’re very cheap, but if you crash and hit your head. They are completely ineffective.”

How did she find herself over the past 20 years or so becoming an expert in injury epidemiology?

“At uni I was involved in a group called SICH (student initiatives in community health) with my sister who did medicine. That was in the 1980s and I found I was really interested in community health and public health. One of the things I did when I graduated was to get myself up to the Northern Territory to work in Aboriginal health. Working there made me aware that the system had problems and to change that I needed to understand a much bigger picture. Eventually, I returned to Sydney to do a PhD in epidemiology and was offered a scholarship involved in a study dealing with poor vision, falls and hip fractures in elderly people.

“The advice at the time - and it was fantastic advice - was to take the training and experience the opportunity offered, and then use it later in the areas in which I wanted to work, which was in Aboriginal health,” Rebecca explains.

One of the Australian Financial Review and Westpac’s 100 Women of Influence for 2014, Rebecca topped the Innovation category. Hazarding a guess around why, of the other 10 winners in her category, she stood out, she believes it is the licencing support program she and her team began 10 years ago.

Called Driving Change, it began by talking with Aboriginal communities to see what the big issues in road safety were. Indigenous people are over represented in injury and crashes and it is a major issue for communities.

“However,” says Rebecca, “what we discovered was that driver licencing itself was the issue and a much bigger issue than just driver safety.

“Licences provide access to services, education and very importantly, employment. We soon realised that any preconceived notions about how the research and its outcomes should go needed to change and we were willing to do that. The program has community support runs across various government agencies and operates in 12 sites,” Rebecca explains, her face lit with the animation of possibility.

Research, as one of our previous 100 Women of Influence winners, skin cancer specialist Professor Adele Green says, is not meant to stay stuck in a laboratory caught on paper. Getting down and dirty, talking through the issues with the community and stakeholders and being willing to work with the community whose issues you are trying to address is what’s important.

Historically, according to Rebecca, injury is something we often come to from a place of acceptance.

How many of us see the road fatalities each year and think, ‘well, that’s inevitable’. Or hear that children choke or drown and suffer burns and say, ‘well, that’s life’.

Rebecca would say it’s not.

“People complain about the ‘Nanny State’, but legislation and rules founded on solid research provide us with a safe environment in which to live. Pretty much all the gains we’ve made over time - and I can tell you child fatalities have decreased significantly since the 1970s - have been because of rules and regulations,” says Rebecca, referencing pool fencing and drowning, standards around toys and choking, and child restraints in cars, etc.

Drink driving legislation, speed cameras, red light cameras, regulations around building safer cars, maintaining and building better designed roads – all these things play a part creating a safer world.

“Remember when Drink Driving legislation came in,” Rebecca asks?

“People said, ‘this is ridiculous, this isn’t going to make a difference and it will ruin the whole Australian lifestyle’.

“For every significant piece of road safety legislation that has been brought in there is a corresponding drop in crashes, injury and death.

“It doesn’t matter what the sentiment is. What actually matters is how you vary people’s behaviour. People know speeding is wrong but they still speed. However, if you have legislation and appropriate levels of enforcement and penalties - and you must surround that with education and marketing so that people know what to expect - then behavioural change will happen and attitudes will follow,” says Rebecca.

On a mission to attract young people to research as a career, Rebecca has made a conscious decision to use her Women of Influence status to highlight Australia’s research capacity. She wants to make sure government and business are investing in young scientists who are coming through. If we don’t invest, then we are going to reach a point in ten years’ time where we will have no innovation.

“Smart young people have choices, and choosing research, which is extremely competitive, is not going to be lucrative or a career path unless we invest now. For women, this is especially so, and if we don’t put the resources in, including around flexible work practices and financial help, then young people will just go to business,” she finishes with passion.

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