Breathalyser and random breath testing pioneer Jack Thomas farewelled in Echuca, aged 91

Breathalyser and random breath testing pioneer Jack Thomas farewelled in Echuca, aged 91

Breathalyser and random breath testing pioneer Jack Thomas farewelled in Echuca, aged 91

Updated 7 September 2017, 18:00 AEST

Chief Inspector John 'Jack' Thomas, who has died aged 91, saved the lives of many Victorians in his early work establishing breathalysers in an Australian first.

Chief Inspector John 'Jack' Thomas, who has died aged 91, has been remembered for saving the lives of many Victorians in his work with early breathalysers in the 1960s, an Australian first.

For his significant contribution to the community in reducing Victoria's staggering road toll, the retired policeman has received a ceremonial funeral in his hometown of Echuca.

His work as the chief inspector in charge of breath analysis in the early 1960s and subsequent presentation of evidence in the courts set the standard which contributed to changing community attitudes towards drink driving.

In 1970, the Victorian road toll was 1,061.

At midnight on September 6, 2017, the road toll was 175.

"I remember in the early days if someone got busted for .05 they'd say 'Oh, you poor thing'," his son and retired police officer Neil Thomas recalled.

He said the introduction of the breathalyser, to which his father was a strong campaigner, "completely changed" community attitudes.

Such was Mr Thomas' commitment to reducing the road toll he was awarded numerous awards including the Queens Police Medal, the National Police Service Medal, the Groves Medal from the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, in addition to an honorary fellowship.

"To be a fellow of the College of Surgeons you're meant to be a surgeon. But because he'd done so much to save lives, he was awarded that," Mr Thomas said.

Traumatic 1970s toll

While the Victorian road toll was exceptionally high in 1970, it reflected the high number nationally with a record 3,798 deaths.

Research Professor Brian Fildes from the Monash Accident Research Centre said the number of people killed was almost a direct correlation with the number of vehicles on the road.

"The more vehicles we put on the road the more people were dying as a result of road accidents," he said.

"It was really quite a trauma at that point."

According to Professor Fildes, after 1970 "things changed fairly dramatically" with the number of deaths falling, while the number of vehicles continued to increase.

He attributed this to the implementation of a more scientific approach in tackling the road toll with Australia taking its lead from American physician Dr William Hadden, a leader in highway accident research and prevention in the United States.

"He started to think of the road toll in much the same way as you would think of any other health condition," Professor Fildes said.

The three crucial 'instruments' Dr Hadden studied for reducing road toll were the human factor, the vehicle and the road.

Some of his key findings around changing behavioural patterns resulted in focusing on reducing drink driving and speeding, which resulted in speed programs and random breath testing (RBT).

"We as a country were learning about the role of alcohol in crashes back in those days and this random breath testing approach — were people were pulled over and tested for their level of alcohol — was something that developed during the 80s and 90s," Professor Fildes said.

Victoria first to introduce RBT

Even though Chief Inspector Thomas was working with breathalysers as early as 1961, it was not until 1976 that Victoria became the first state to introduce RBT legislation.

This was followed five years later by the Northern Territory and South Australia, and in 1982 it was introduced to New South Wales and ACT.

However, Professor Fildes said it had only been in the past decade that Australia has really understood the role of alcohol in car crashes, reflected in the reduced death rate.

In the year 2000 there were 9.5 deaths per 100,000 people, and in 2014 there were five deaths per 100,000 — but with more work needed.

"In the last couple of years we're starting to see a bit of an upturn in the road toll and that's of great concern to everyone," Professor Fildes said.

While he had currently only completed a preliminary analysis of new figures, and was reluctant to draw any conclusions, he said speed was a significant factor that should be focused on.

"It probably took us about 20 years or so for the community to actually accept [RBT], that it wasn't safe to drink and drive, and I think we're only at the start of that when it comes to speeding," he said.

"In another twenty years people will understand that it is equally as dangerous to speed as it is to drink and drive."