'It's a life sentence': How not wearing a seatbelt changed man's life in just 15 minutes

Olivia Lambert
Associate News Editor

It took just 15 minutes for Sam Bailey’s entire life to change.

He was 19 and working as a jackaroo in the Northern Territory when he jumped in the car with friends to go to the pub and forgot to put on a seatbelt.

On July 12, 1987, as Mr Bailey and his three mates sped down the road, the front passenger tyre of the car blew out and he was thrown out the back window.

“The first words I said to a couple who pulled up to help were, ‘I hope I don’t spend my life in a wheelchair’,” he told Yahoo News Australia.

“I knew pretty early on something was wrong.

“I was lying on the side of the road and I was completely paralysed. I had no sensation in my lower body.”

Sam Bailey and his wife Jenny on their NSW farm. Source: Supplied/Sam Bailey

Mr Bailey’s spinal cord was severed at the base of his neck, leaving him a quadriplegic with only minimal use of his arms and hands. He has a total inability to regulate his body temperature and has no sensation from the chest down – all because he didn’t wear a seatbelt.

Sam Bailey’s dreams ‘shattered’ after crash

“I went from being a six-foot tall, bullet-proof young bloke to a world of complete dependency – it was hard to cope,” he said.

“I spent five months in the spinal unit, where I had to learn to sit up in bed and maintain balance with 75kgs of dead weight.”

Farming was in Mr Bailey’s blood. He always wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and take over the family farm after finishing his schooling and experiencing a year or two in the big wide world.

Sam Bailey's whole life changed after he became a quadriplegic in a car accident. Source: Supplied/Sam Bailey

It was when he finally returned to the family home in Croppa Creek, in northern NSW, did he realise it was not in the way he dreamed.

His parents had built ramps and sliding doors to help Mr Bailey around the home, and in his old bedroom was a surfboard against the wall and footy boots in the corner – painful memories of what he left behind.

“It hits you, you’ll never play another game of rugby, that dream was shattered. I had no car, basically I was housebound. The biggest thing of all was learning to live life in a wheelchair,” he said.

‘It’s a life sentence’

Despite Mr Bailey’s whole life changing, he didn’t let it destroy his dreams. Since the accident 32 years ago, he has written a book about overcoming adversity, Head over Heels, and has become the farmer he always wanted to be as well as an ultralight pilot.

He also met his wife Jenny Black – a former ABC Rural journalist who wrote a story about him – and now plans to become the first quadriplegic in the world to fly a helicopter.

He is using his personal story as an opportunity to educate young drivers about road safety.

Sam Bailey now plans to become the first quadriplegic to fly a helicopter. Source: Supplied/Sam Bailey

“Obviously I had an accident. I didn’t have a seatbelt on in a car that was speeding. It takes three seconds to put a seatbelt on and in my case, it’s a life sentence,” he said.

“If you’re in a car with somebody speeding, with your mates, tell them to slow down. I know as a driver if something happens – you kill or maim one of your mates – it’ll stay with you for the rest of your life.

“Think of another person you might run into or kill – a kid won’t have a father, parents won’t have a son or there will be people who have to look after them if they are maimed.

“Give a lot of thought to that and think, ‘I might just put this seatbelt on’.”

Not wearing seatbelts – a leading cause of road deaths

In NSW, about 30 drivers and passengers are killed each year, with more than 200 injured as a result of not wearing a seatbelt.

Transport for NSW says many of those incidents could have been prevented. According to the transport body, wearing a seatbelt causes an occupant to decelerate at the same rate as a car in a crash, prevents people colliding with exterior parts of the car and reduces the risk of people being thrown from a car.

Sam Bailey now shares his road safety message with school students. Source: Supplied/Sam Bailey

Research from the Queensland University of Technology identified not wearing a seatbelt as one of the major causes of death in a road crash.

“Wearing a properly adjusted seatbelt reduces the risk of fatal or serious injury by up to 50 per cent,” QUT’s CARRS-Q research institute found.

“In Australia, approximately 20 per cent of drivers and passengers killed in crashes (where seatbelt use is known) are not wearing seatbelts. On average around 150 people die nationally per year from this cause.”

Fines for not wearing seatbelts

Not wearing a seat belt carries hefty fines all across Australia. It’ll cost you $344 in NSW, $330 in Victoria, $381 in South Australia, $400 in Queensland, $550 in Western Australia, $300 in Tasmania, $500 in the Northern Territory and $435 in the ACT.

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