Coroner to probe Strathmerton black spot after six deaths in just over a year

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The deputy state coroner will examine a decade’s worth of crashes and near misses at a notorious rural intersection after learning six people had died at the same location in just over a year.

Six people died in two crashes at the intersection of Murray Valley Highway and Labuan Road at Strathmerton in February 2022 and April this year, sparking a coronial investigation into what can be done to prevent further deaths.

An air ambulance at the scene of the most recent crash last month.Credit: Nine

Deputy State Coroner Jacqui Hawkins on Thursday heard that Tasmanian transport driver Kerry Rushton died at the intersection after colliding with an unmarked police car about midday on February 15 in 2022.

On April 20 this year, Cobram woman Debbie Markey was driving four international visitors on working visas home from work at a JBS abattoir when their Nissan Navara collided with a white Mercedes-Benz and a fully laden B-double milk tanker about 2.20pm.

All five people travelling in the Nissan – Markey, Pin-Yu Wang, Hsin-Yu Chen, Wai Yan Lam and Zih-Yao Chen – died at the scene

Counsel assisting the coroner Lindsay Spence said at the time it was described as the deadliest motor vehicle incident in the state in 11 years. Both directions at the intersection had a marked speed limit of 100 km/h, he said.

Debbie Markey and Kerry Rushton were killed in separate collisions a year apart at Strathmerton.

Hawkins extended her “sincere condolences” to those who had lost a loved one in the crashes.

“[The collisions] have identified that there are current and known risks with this particular intersection. I’d like to understand what if any risk assessments, audits and remedial action is being undertaken to … prevent any further deaths.”

Spence said that in February 2022, Rushton arrived in Melbourne aboard the Spirit of Tasmania and was travelling to NSW in a white Toyota Hiace van to complete deliveries in places including Tamworth, Nyngan, Dubbo and West Wyalong.

As he travelled along Labuan Road at about 88km/h, data shows he attempted to brake about 1¼ seconds before colliding with an unmarked police car, a Ford Ranger belonging to a local detective, travelling at 100 km/h.

Following the impact, the Toyota struck a tree, killing Rushton. Two police officers were hospitalised with serious injuries.

The second deadly collision, in April, was captured on dashcam footage. A 29-year-old man was later charged with five counts of dangerous driving causing death for allegedly pushing the Toyota into the path of a truck.

Spence said while coronial investigations usually commenced after criminal proceedings ended, initial inquiries found they could both run at the same time.

He said this was because the coronial investigation would examine issues separate to the actions of the Mercedes driver. These issues, he said, included the history of the intersection over the past 10 years, what changes had been implemented as a result of these, such as signage and road markings, and what, if any, changes are planned.

The coroner will also have access to body-worn camera footage and in-car video of a police intercept of the Mercedes-Benz by members of the Cobram highway patrol shortly before the most recent deadly crash, he said.

The Murray Valley Highway is managed by the state government and Labuan Road by Moira Shire Council.

Families of the four international workers killed this year watched the hearing remotely with the assistance of translators.

Kathryn Footner, representing the families of three of the international workers killed in April, said they supported the coronial investigation occurring as soon as possible as they didn’t want this to happen to anyone else.

The Strathmerton intersection a day after a horrific crash that killed five people.Credit: Nine News

In May, this masthead revealed police had sounded the alarm about the stretch of road more than a year before April’s deadly crash.

Both the Department of Transport and the Moira Shire Council were told that signage at the intersection in Strathmerton was inadequate and handed a list of recommended improvements after a February 2022 site visit.

At the time, police had undertaken a fatal collision audit of the intersection after Rushton’s van failed to give way and smashed into an unmarked police car.

The intersection is a notorious black spot in the area.Credit: The Age

That collision was the third at or near the intersection since December 2021, and came amid a series of near-misses.

Among other things, the report suggested removing a bump on the road caused by an old railway line embankment on Labuan Road that reduced visibility.

The Department of Transport made some improvements to signage and installed rumble strips at the crossroads following the audit but did not act on the remaining recommendations put forward by police.

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