Perth's Isolation and Urban Sprawl Have Created a Drink-Driving Nightmare
We need to talk about Western Australia, where drink driving is still the reason behind 32% of road deaths.
Illustration by Ben Thomson
This article is supported by the WA Road Safety Commission. We look at the repercussions of drivers that drink and then get behind the wheel.
When people think of drink driving they think of ‘hoons’. Variations on a theme: cooked country boys bowling down old timber roads in the south west, flinging themselves through windscreens into old tuarts; or jaded drag racers whipping from the Leach Highway Maccas to the pedestrian overpass in Willetton, decapitating themselves by rear-ending a sheep truck.
They don’t think about the guy who drives home after downing a few pints at the pub with mates. But they should.
Alcohol remains a factor in a third of fatalities on WA roads. According a WA Road Commission annual report of the 196 road fatalities in 2016, 62 were alcohol-related. 29 percent involved drivers aged between 20 and 29.
Summer is the season for these crashes. When The West Australian isn’t photoshopping giant sharks onto its front page, it’s lamenting the Mad Max hellscape that is WA’s roads.
In 2017, the WA government released an ad campaign with the tagline ‘Drink driving? Grow up!’ which featured child actors as Perth archetypes (look a FIFO!) rattling off common excuses for driving home tanked: “I need the car in the morning,” “I’ve only had a few,” “I’ll take the backroads.”
To understand drink driving in WA, Perth especially, you have to understand the particular strand of madness the place breeds.
An ongoing existential crisis caused by the schism between light living and heavy boredom. A unique form of depression I call ‘Perthedonia.’
“Back in ‘86 I’d spend a Friday partying on High Street in Freo, back when it was all still bars, then floor it down the Old Coast Road as far south as I could get before blacking out,” says Ken, an old family friend who ‘deals with horses’ (he is not a vet). “It was a choice between that or getting my head kicked in. At least in the car I had my tapes.”
He’s now 20 years sober. “The reality of it was, there was nothing to do here then but drink. A mate of mine drove his Holden into a freight train in ‘91. Everyone said it was because he was on the piss, but I know otherwise. He’d reached the bottom of his boredom.”
He laughs. “I do that same drive now some Friday nights. I do it sober, but for the same reasons I did it back then.”
I ask a group of 18-20 year olds if they ever drink drive in Perth. "Hell no,” and “It’s the worst thing to do” is the overall response, but everyone has an exception. Or a frustration.
“OK,” says Sarah, 21. “I’m in a situation at a party where I no longer feel safe. I’ve driven. I’m drunk. ‘Stay Sarah, you can’t drive.’ Now, let’s say I’m in Yokine and it’s past midnight. There’s no buses at this hour, I’d have to walk forever to a train, the last train, which I’d probably miss.
“To get back to Hammi (Hamilton Hill) I’m looking at a $50 taxi, maybe the same for an Uber. So I drive. What are my other options?”
“For me, it’s this,” says Tom, 20. “I can’t afford to go out in the city on weekends and on those rare nights where I can, I suddenly find myself stranded and bored at 1AM. There’s nothing to do. There’s nowhere to go. I don’t want to go home. My options are: one) keep drinking; two) drive around aimlessly.”
His friend Alex chimes in.
“Canning Highway at 2AM on any given Friday is just a thousand sad boys drifting from Maccas to Maccas—because what else is there to do?”
I’ve been one of those sad boys. “Whither goest thou Kwinana Freeway, in my shining car at night?” was a question often asked by my best mate and I as we cruised bored and tipsy between 24/7 McCafe’s and the empty McMansion satellite suburbs that popped up in the golden days of the mining boom.
“Her arm looked like a red icy pole. That’s all I remember,” Tanya says about surviving the crash that caused her sister to lose an arm and movement below the waist. She described her sister’s arm as a red nub, as if it has been “sucked down” to a jagged point, like you would with an icy pole.
They were coming back from Wagin when they were hit by a 46-year-old farmer in a Toyota Hilux. He was drunk. It was 2 in the afternoon.
“I can’t say I’m angry at him,” she says. “I was, but I’m not [anymore]. I grew up in Chittering, I get it.”
Perth still blankets you with an immense sense of isolation. Driving and drinking—combined or apart—often seem like the only remedies.
Drinking fills a lot of holes in the Australian psyche. Toxic masculinity, suicidal despair, violent recklessness: the thirst for self-destruction is at the fore of the Australian narrative, and nowhere is it as innate as it is in WA. A hard-earned thirst needs a big cold fear, and that fear is the unpinnable dread that comes with being young in one of the world’s most remote cities.
Being over the limit behind the wheel seems reasonable in a town that makes you feel as though you have no options and nothing to lose. But it's not reasonable at all.
Drink driving is as dumb as it is nihilistic. Perth might contribute to cultivating that nihilism. But to get behind the wheel after drinking is to ignore that ancient piece of Perth wisdom, passed down generation to generation like the holiest lump of iron ore: just don’t be a dickhead.
If you relate to any of the issues raised in this article, know there's help out there. If you are in Australia you can call Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4436 (24 hours, 7 days per week).
This article is supported by the WA Road Safety Commission. You can find out more about road safety here.