‘The only way is by road’: data shows Aboriginal pedestrians dying at a troubling rate in the NT

Kumanjayi Napurrula Dixon took the route 74 bus through Darwin’s outer south-eastern suburbs, got off at the last stop, and kept walking south along the Stuart Highway.

It was a Monday night, and the Anmatyerre grandmother was going to see her family at their camp near Coolalinga. She never made it. Between getting off the bus and making it to camp, she was allegedly hit by a car and died.

It was the 70th time since 2012 that an Aboriginal person had been struck by a vehicle and killed in the Northern Territory, according to government data provided to Guardian Australia. During the same period, 12 non-Aboriginal pedestrians died. Almost six times as many Aboriginal pedestrians have been killed, despite only making up a quarter of the territory’s population.

“For my family, I think it’s disgusting,” Dixon’s sister, Carol Dixon, said.

“Indigenous people, they’re on foot, they don’t have the luxury of owning a vehicle. They’re walking from place to place.

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“And if you look at the town camps and where they’re situated, it’s out of town, and they have to get to and from there. The only way is by the road.”

Dixon’s death on 30 May was uncovered after one of her legs was found near the highway the morning she was hit.

The man who allegedly struck Dixon in his vehicle, and his mother, who allegedly helped him return to the crash scene and bury the rest of the body, have both been charged with offences including attempting to pervert the course of justice. Their lawyer indicated in court that they intend to plead guilty once the facts have been agreed and there was no suggestion the man had been driving erratically or was legally responsible for the accident.

Judge Therese Austin said text messages potentially showed there had been a callous disregard for Dixon’s death.

Data from the NT department of infrastructure, planning and logistics shows that 18 Aboriginal pedestrians have been killed since 2018. Over the same time period, not a single non-Aboriginal pedestrian died.

Pedestrian deaths have been fairly evenly split between urban areas – classified as Darwin, Palmerston and Alice Springs – and the rest of the territory, which is classified as rural.

Aboriginal people were not as overrepresented in other traffic deaths: with pedestrian figures removed, 148 Aboriginal people have died, compared to 192 non-Aboriginal people. The only other road death category where more Aboriginal people died than non-Aboriginal since 2012 is passenger fatalities.

Prof Jennie Oxley, an associate director at the Monash University accident research centre, said that not enough had been done to understand why Aboriginal pedestrians died at such a troubling rate in the NT.

“There is a lack of research in really understanding Indigenous collision risk,” she said.

“There’s not a whole lot of in-depth analysis about Indigenous crashes generally, and certainly not among pedestrians.

“Clearly it is a huge issue, it’s not being addressed, and we need to more clearly understand the reasons for it.”

Without that research, Oxley said, it was impossible to develop a strategy to reduce deaths.

She said existing research had found Aboriginal people were more likely than non-Aboriginal people to be walking on roads or roadsides, more likely to be struck at night, more likely to be struck while standing or laying on roads, and more likely to be affected by alcohol at the time of their deaths.

David Woodroofe, the principal legal officer at the North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (Naaja), said that pedestrian deaths may have occurred as an unintended consequence of laws to curtail drinking.

In a 2017 submission to the NT government, Naaja said that laws restricting alcohol in remote communities had resulted in “drinking spots” cropping up just outside them.

“Most drinking spots present significant risks to public health and safety because they are often … situated along main highways with maximum speed limits, are inadequately lit to provide visibility of people or obstacles on the road, and are inadequately signed to warn drivers of the likelihood of people or obstacles on the road,” the submission said.

“NAAJA has represented several family members of persons killed by motor vehicles whilst intoxicated at drinking spots near remote communities.

“It is important that immediate steps are undertaken to ensure that tragic deaths of this nature are prevented, and the serious risks that drinking spots post to the community are minimised.”

In 2014, Prof Marcia Langton and two other University of Melbourne academics said in a submission to a federal government inquiry into the harmful use of alcohol in Aboriginal communities that they had been told about eight deaths involving “intoxicated people wandering from drinking camps into the path of fast moving vehicles on roads on the Stuart Highway near the Mataranka Hotel and on the Roper Highway”.

Neither submission prompted significant change. In a 10-day period last December, two Aboriginal men were struck and killed by cars in separate incidents in the exact same area of Mataranka, a community about 100km south of Katherine, that had featured in the University of Melbourne submission.

‘Pushed to the margins of cities’

Woodroofe said alcohol was not the only factor. Aboriginal leaders from some camps had been pushing for funding for safety fencing, traffic bollards and other infrastructure to make them safer, he said, to no avail.

Guardian Australia also understands that around Darwin the community organisation Larrakia Nation is partnering with the Safer City Program to provide hi-vis shirts to Aboriginal people, among other initiatives to cut the rate of pedestrian deaths.

The NT police and department of infrastructure, planning and logistics did not respond to questions before deadline about Aboriginal pedestrian deaths and what was being done to address them.

“When Aboriginal people are pushed to the margins of cities, literally to the margins, and you have camps set up on highways, you have places that are unsafe for pedestrians,” Woodroofe said.

“People are doing things [that are dangerous] out of life’s necessities because they are on the edge of society.

“If you have to cross a six-lane highway to get access to water, that’s not something anyone else has to confront.”

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Carol Dixon, a University of Newcastle academic, wants her sister’s death to be a catalyst for change.

Kumanjayi Napurrula Dixon should be remembered not as a body part on the side of a highway, but as one Aboriginal pedestrian death too many, Dixon said. She should also be remembered and for her “mad”, “crazy” and “bubbly” personality.

There was no evidence she had been drunk or done anything dangerous, Dixon said; she was simply trying to do what she loved most: spending time with her family, a people originally from the central desert.

“Because I wasn’t raised out on community, she was proud of me and my siblings when I went home, and took them home,” Dixon said. “Very proud.”

Soon, Dixon plans to travel home to the NT again, for her sister’s funeral.