Educating teens about the true cost of road trauma

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

It was a decision that almost cost Zac Jones his life.

The four mates who joined him in the car on that night in 2017 were also lucky to be pulled from the wreckage alive.

Mr Jones doesn’t refer to driving through a red light at 140 kilometres an hour and crashing the vehicle the five young people were in an ‘accident’. He knows it wasn’t. He made a choice to drive the car – despite being drunk, drug-affected, and on a suspended licence.

After pleading guilty to four serious charges, Mr Jones was sentenced to almost five years in jail. His early release back into the community on parole after serving two and a half years of his sentence demanded a commitment to community service, a driving ban for a defined period, and a strict curfew that meant he had to be home between the hours of 12 midnight and six am.

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Now 27 and only recently free of the GPS ankle bracelet that monitored his movements throughout his parole, he talks to teenagers at schools and sporting clubs to help them understand how they can make better choices than he did.

“It goes back to the old saying: ‘It takes a village to raise a child’,” he says. “There just needs to be a constant reinforcement of the message of anti-drink driving…and I think that we, as a nation, need to create a culture of responsible drinking and consequential thinking – especially in young boys.”

Struggles with self-esteem and bullying led down a dangerous path

For Mr Jones, his prison sentence became time to reflect on his life’s path. It was a path of anger and damaged self-esteem that was made worse by school bullying that targeted his creative love of music and singing. School refusal, as well as drug and alcohol addiction, followed.

Zac Jones profile

After reading a memoir dealing with addiction, he was motivated to write his own story while still in jail. His mother, Jane Jones, wrote alternating chapters with him – contributing her own perspective about watching her private school-educated and much-loved only son gradually pull away from the life she worked hard to provide for him.

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The result Why the Fallen?: A story of responsibility, recovery, and redemption – was released in 2022.

Sharing real stories can make a difference

His decision to share his story honestly and openly with secondary school students as a visiting speaker is, he says, driven by his desire to “help prevent other young Australians from making the horrible mistake I made, and potentially harming or worse, killing themselves or others”.

It is important to share my journey growing up and the choices I made as a teenager to highlight the negative, and reckless habits that ultimately lead to my crashing my car, drink drug driving,” he told EducationDaily.

By doing so, he wants to reinforce that his crash was not just one mistake – “but years of poor choices, drug and alcohol abuse and bad friendships”.

“I don’t want to see anyone else hurt or die on our roads as a result of careless and negligent people like the person I was. I feel I owe it to my community and all of Australia to do my part in preventing road trauma,” he says.

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Teaching school students how to overcome peer pressure

Empowering the youth of Australia to stand up and be the voice of reason in their friendship groups, can, he says, make a life-saving difference, by “stopping their friends driving under the influence and getting into the car with an intoxicated driver”.

Ultimately, he says, his unique, intensely personal brand of road safety education is about “creating a culture of responsible and positive mateship”.

“By sharing lived experience and putting myself on the same level as the students, I’m able to show them that ‘it can happen to me’.

The idea that too many teenagers have, unfortunately – that road trauma won’t happen to them – is, Mr Jones says, “an ideology that, time and time again, has proved to be potentially fatal”.

“I talk at length about consequences,” he says. “Consequences for perpetrators such as myself, but more importantly the consequences other people face as a result of our actions. Young kids love someone and so, by making them think of the effect their actions have on that person, they become incredibly receptive to the message.”

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Mateship matters

His emotive, moving and, at times, harrowing, talk to schools includes sharing his views about what being a real friend is.

“This portion of the presentation is vital, as it is a call to action to everyone listening,” he told EducationDaily. “To refuse to stand by while your friends endanger their lives or the lives of others, and to drive change in their peer groups to create a culture of responsible mateship.”

Mr Jones says his presentation takes the ‘I didn’t mean for this to happen’, or ‘I didn’t think it would happen to me’ excuses away from the listeners.

Instead, he aims to “hammer home to them that they know better now – and it is up to them to protect their friends and other road users”.

Mental health, overcoming drug and alcohol addiction, the importance of family and positive relationships, and the benefits of staying in school, are all key parts of what he shares with the students. As a fledgling singer/songwriter, he is also open about talking about the long-term impacts of bullying, and building resilience, as well as why it’s important to find your passion in life and pursue it – “no matter what”.

At each talk he delivers, the feedback he gets from both students and teachers present still overwhelms him.

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“I have students come up to me in tears, sharing how much they related to my story and how moved they were by my presentation, vowing to never drink and drive or let their friends do it either,” he told EducationDaily. “Other kids have bravely come up, concerned about their own addiction problems, asking for further guidance on how to get off and stay off drugs. It’s incredibly humbling.”

Road safety is an education sector issue

Jaynee Hopgood is the vocational team leader at the Macalister Campus of Sale College in regional Victoria and recently invited Mr Jones to speak to a group of students.

“It was brought to my attention by a parent of our school, and I felt it was important that young people hear this story – especially our school-leavers who are about to embark on their next journey,” she told EducationDaily.

The impact, she says, was meaningful.

“Watching the students throughout the presentation, I could see that they were really engaged and listening to what Zac had to say. Post-interview, I had the opportunity to speak to many students who really resonated with Zac’s message. Sadly, some of our students have been impacted by road trauma, so it was confronting for them.”

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Because regional students often do not have the accessibility of public transportation like city students – and typically have to travel longer distances – she believes teaching effective road safety messaging is even more important.

For Mr Jones, knowing he has helped shift the thinking of even just one young mind matters.

What’s even more incredible, he says, is when parents of students who have been at his presentation reach out to him on social media to thank him for the work he’s doing.

“Several parents have told me that, after hearing my presentation, their kids came home and told them about it – and how this opened conversations that parents had never been able to have with their kids, and that they had seen real change in their kid’s attitude towards, family, school, parties and social groups,” he says. “Hearing these things is what drives me to keep doing what I’m doing. I can never take back what I did, but if I can save just one life, it wasn’t for nothing.”

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]