Coroner told of failure to act on safety recommendations ahead of Finke death

Closing submissions have now been delivered to the coronial inquest into a spectator death at the Finke Desert Race in 2021. Picture: Finke Desert Race Facebook

Closing submissions have now been delivered to the coronial inquest into a spectator death at the Finke Desert Race in 2021. Picture: Finke Desert Race Facebook

There was a failure to act on safety recommendations and risks highlighted by multiple reports before the death of a spectator at the Finke Desert Race, a coronial inquest has heard.

Nigel Harris was killed during the return leg of the 2021 event when he was struck by a truck competing in the race while taking photographs near a section of track about 35km from Alice Springs.

The inquest, which heard last August that spectator safety recommendations were “grossly lacking”, resumed this week.

In her closing submissions, counsel assisting the coroner, Jodi Truman, told the court that the Finke organising committee did “little to nothing” to mitigate risks despite the identification of situations which posed “extreme” danger, reports the ABC.

A Motorsport Australia safety advisor handed a report to the body in 2018 which raised concerns about lack of controls for spectators, and called for a formal exclusion zone and “spectator safety team”.

The report was handed to Finke organisers but, Ms Truman told the court, they did not act on its recommendations despite being followed up multiple times by Motorsport Australia.

In fact, the safety advisor even stated, in an email to colleagues, that there was “no appetite for change” on the part of the Finke committee.

While some changes were in fact implemented before the fateful 2021 event, counsel representing Motorsport Australia, Bruce Hodgkinson SC, admitted more should have been done.

“It is accepted that more action should have been taken by MSA to address concerns, which have been raised about spectator safety,” he told the court.

“Improvements should have been made before the race in 2021 to known spectator areas.

“Those improvements should have included a greater presence of trained spectator marshals, improved marking, signage, bunting, and other measures.”

Ms Truman told the court that a safety management plan developed by Motorsport Australia and handed to Finke organisers before last year’s event had not been fully implemented.

She also raised the question of whether “the Finke committee are sufficiently capable of being able to operate a race like the Finke.”

However, Motorsport Australia’s own behaviour also came under scrutiny, with Coroner Elisabeth Armitage raising concerns about secrecy in documentation.

“By that I mean marking documents as confidential, highly confidential, privileged and legally privileged,” she said to Mr Hodgkinson, reports the NT News.

“I’m also concerned about the failure to minute the discussions in the meetings which addressed safety issues, and I was concerned that was potentially a deliberate endeavour to have secrecy around those discussions and those issues.”

Mr Hodgkinson reportedly admitted the need for greater transparency.

All members of the Finke committee declined to give evidence during the inquest, which Ms Armitage had already described as “quite extraordinary” during the proceedings which took place last year.

The coroner will hand down her findings at a later date.

This year’s Finke Desert Race starts on Friday, June 9.

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