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Coroner finds Finke safety measures ‘entirely inadequate’ prior to spectator death

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A Northern Territory coroner has handed down her findings into a spectator death at the Finke Desert Race in 2021, concluding that measures to protect spectators from significant known risks were “entirely inadequate”. 

Nigel Harris, 60, died from multiple blunt-force injuries when a competing trophy truck veered off the track and crashed into a group standing at a popular spectator site 35 kilometres from the finish line.

The court heard after cresting a sand dune, the vehicle hit two “whoops” — bumps on the track — before fracturing the lower rear axle trailing arm, breaking the steering.

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Mr Harris continued to take photos of the truck as it hurtled towards him, apparently “oblivious to the impending danger” until it was too late.

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Last August, a coronial inquest presided over by Elisabeth Armitage set out to examine the adequacy of safety measures in place to protect spectators.

The inquest heard that both Motorsport Australia (MSA) and the Finke committee had been aware of the “extreme” danger posed to spectators for years, but did “little to nothing” to mitigate the risks.

In her findings released on Monday, Judge Armitage recommended that prior to granting approvals, the NT government must ensure adequate spectator safety measures have been implemented.

She also recommended that organisers provide a “comprehensive spectator management plan” to the government, which effectively mitigates risks.

Nigel Harris, who died when he was struck by a vehicle at the Finke Desert Race, was a keen photographer.()

New safety measures introduced

The findings have been released just days before this year’s Finke Desert Race begins on the King’s Birthday long weekend.

The race is known as one of the world’s most remote and rough off-road courses, traversing 230km of treacherous desert track through Central Australia.

There was uncertainty over whether the sport’s national body, Motorsport Australia (MSA), would sanction the car section of the race in light of evidence given during the coronial inquest.

Crash investigators inspect the vehicle at the centre of the 2021 fatal crash at the Finke Desert Race.()

But Finke organisers confirmed less than two weeks ago that MSA would issue a permit for the section, subject to new safety measures.

These included a minimum 30-metre spectator setback from the track, as well as “significant” spectator setbacks at landing zones over crests and rises along the track.

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There would also be supervised public view points throughout the track, and spectator exclusion zones and off-limit zones at high-risk corners of the track.

MSA acknowledges lack of safety

During the inquest, the court heard a report by MSA’s safety adviser in September 2018 found there were no spectator marshals “at any location” on the course in the years leading up to 2021, with a complete lack of spectator supervision.

There are concerns safety recommendations were consistently ignored by organisers.()

The adviser called for a formal exclusion zone to be established along the entire course and recommended the formation of a “spectator safety team” to ensure spectators were effectively managed.

But counsel assisting the coroner, Jodi Truman, told the court that despite MSA following up on the report several times with the Finke committee, no recommendations were implemented.

The court heard another report commissioned by the Finke committee following the 2019 event rated the risk of a spectator death as “extreme” and recommended the use of barricade tape in accordance with international rally guidelines.

The site along the Finke Desert Race track where Nigel Harris lost his life.()

MSA also prepared a report after the 2019 race calling for “more resources and qualified individuals” at the event, after a race vehicle flew off the track and into a tree, crushing two tricycles that moments earlier had been occupied by children.

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But despite these warnings, Ms Truman said there was no evidence any concerns were addressed.

Concerns over lack of transparency

Finke committee members and senior MSA staff declined to give evidence throughout the inquest.

Judge Armitage questioned MSA’s “increasing levels of secrecy” and a lack of transparency around safety issues, citing emails and documents circulated within the organisation marked as “highly confidential” and “legally privileged”.

The Finke Desert Race is known as one of the world’s roughest and toughest off-road courses.()

In closing submissions, MSA’s senior counsel Bruce Hodgkinson acknowledged recommendations in a scathing safety report were not adopted until it was too late.

“It’s accepted that more action should have been taken by MSA to address concerns which have been raised about spectator safety from 2018,” he said.

“Improvements should have been before the race in 2021.”

At last year’s event, additional measures were introduced to improve safety, including roving spectator marshals, “no-go zones” and rules requiring spectators to keep at least 20 metres from the track at all times.

Motorsport Australia and the NT government have been contacted for comment.

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