A crucial highway linking the Queensland coast to the coal-rich Bowen Basin has seen 550 crashes in 10 years and has been likened to roads in the Third World.
The 273-kilometre Peak Downs Highway runs from Clermont in the west, past the mining town of Moranbah, and on to Mackay on the coast.
The stretch of bitumen is crucial to the national economy – about 200 million tonnes of export coal came out of the Bowen Basin last year – much of it from mines off the Peak Downs Highway.
Yet road safety experts say that on a five-star scale, parts of the highway would rate just two – equivalent to roads in Bangladesh.
Phillip Dowler and his crew at CQ Rescue are often the ones that have to deal with the highway’s toll.
“It’s a road designed in the ’60s and ’70s, for quite small traffic movements. Now it’s subject to thousands of cars a day using it to travel from Mackay to the coal mines in the west,” he said.
Someone is killed or seriously injured on the Peak Downs Highway on average about once every two-and-a-half weeks. Fatigue causes close to four in 10 accidents.
Many using the road are coming off 12-hour shifts in the coal mines. They finish work – often at night – and then they jump in the car to make the 300-kilometre drive back to Mackay.
The crash zone
Mining services contractor Dave McNeil knows the dangers too well.
Just over two years ago, he was driving from a mine site to Mackay behind a ute and a truck. A fatigued driver coming the other way veered across the road.
“He hit the red ute right on the rear wheel driver’s side which then catapulted that car round behind him, he then impacted the front of the truck,” he said.
“The truck impacted, went up on its nose, rolled down the embankment.”
Mr McNeil says the truck then caught fire.
“The guys were screaming, ‘get us out of here, it’s on fire, it’s on fire’,” he said.
Mr McNeil rescued the truck driver and his passenger before it incinerated but the driver of the Commodore wagon who had caused the crash was not so lucky.
Mr McNeil says the highway would be better described as a goat track.
“You’ve got people driving 110, 115, 120 kilometres an hour, you’ve got close interaction between heavy vehicles, fatigued people, all fatigued people. There’s nothing you can do, it’s just a recipe for disaster that highway,” he said.
Real estate heaven
The highway runs through the town of Moranbah – home to thousands of miners – making it heaven for real estate agents.
A basic three-bedroom weatherboard house rents for $900 a week and in the newer part of town nothing rents for less than $2,000. For buyers, the market starts at $800,000.
This high cost of housing combined with the lure of the coast pushes workers towards drive-in, drive-out from the mines.
The Peak Downs Highway was the subject of a special conference in Mackay last week.
Steve Smyth from the CMFEU says it is a disgrace that nothing has been done upgrade the road.
“They generate most of the wealth not just for Queensland but for this country them coal towns,” he said.
“The money’s not being spent back into the community. It’s alright to have a flash highway down the middle of south-east Queensland. You drive from Mackay to Moranbah on the Peak Downs Highway – it’s a disgrace.