Dangerous drive renews calls for safety

The mangled 4WD that left two foreign backpackers dead and nine others injured.
The mangled 4WD that left two foreign backpackers dead and nine others injured. Fraser Coast Chronicle

“NO experience necessary”.

A search of websites for companies which hire out four-wheel-drives on Fraser Island shows they invariably contain this phrase.

But after a 22-year-old British man and a 26-year-old woman died in a four-wheel-drive roll-over at Seventy-Five Mile beach on Saturday, questions are again being raised about who should be allowed to drive on the island and under what circumstances.

Nine other European backpackers were injured, two critically, when the troop carrier crashed at high speed.

Since 2003, more than 120 serious crashes have occurred at the popular backpacking destination, often involving rental vehicles with an inexperienced driver at the wheel.

As a result, there are calls for the Queensland Government to toughen up on rules for four-wheel driving on Fraser Island, with the RACQ's Gary Fites saying thousands of people use the island's famous beaches safely each year, but speed limits and driving permits should be reviewed.

And that is exactly one of the problems needing to be addressed according to Sunshine Coast based Beach and Track 4WD Driver Training school operator Tony Nicholas.

“It should be deemed illegal (to drive off-road) unless they have completed a course or some form of training,” Mr Nicholas said.

“They have no experience and they don't need it. Then they are let out on a wide area with changing conditions and not all of them can handle it.”

Four-wheel-drive companies who let vehicles on the island require their customers to sit through a pre-departure safety session which gives a brief overview of what they can expect while driving, any known hazards and an update on the beach and track conditions.

For most companies, 21 is the minimum age requirement. Others demand the driver be at least 25.

From Mr Nicholas' point of view, it's not enough.

“Nine times out of 10 they are going too fast for the conditions.

“They are ignorant of what is going on around them and many don't realise that driving on a beach is twice as hard as driving on a hard road,” he said.

“You have ruts in the sand, waves, a shifting surface and we have drivers with no experience tackling this.”

Mr Nicholas said he and his wife stopped visiting the island “seven or eight years ago” because the beaches were becoming too dangerous.

“When I hear of these sorts of things happening, I just shake my head,” he said. “You can understand how they happen.”

He believes the government should step in to make training courses mandatory, possibly subsidising them to ensure the businesses which rely on the visitor trade are not harmed.

“It all boils down to money. But enough is enough.

“If you make laws to stop four-wheel-driving, then it harms the locals. Where do you draw the line?

“And the young ones are not going to do the course first because they are on a tight budget.

“You would have to force them to spend the money or they just wouldn't do it. But someone needs to step in with a solution.”

Fraser Coast mayor Mick Kruger said it was past time for a massive overhaul of the speed limits on Fraser Island and called on the State Government to address the problem.

"When you're on Fraser Island, it's just totally different to driving a four wheel drive vehicle anywhere else," he said.

"I've always believed that the Minister should take hold of this and introduce tag along tours.

"An experienced four wheel drive operator knowing the conditions on Fraser Island would lead, and the other vehicles would tag along behind them," he said.

The minister for sustainability and climate change, Kate Jones said the government would wait for both the police and coronial investigations recommendations before considering reviewing speed limits on Fraser Island.

The British High Commission in Canberra confirmed on Sunday the man who died was a British national.

Police say the nationality of the woman won't be released until she's been positively identified.

A British official is providing consular support in Brisbane where three of the injured people were taken.

A British, Swiss and Norwegian are being treated for spinal injuries at Brisbane's Princess Alexandra Hospital and are expected to remain in hospital for at least another week.

Royal Brisbane and Women's Hospital acting executive director Amanda Dines said one person is in the intensive care unit and another will undergo surgery.

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