Remembering Kathy Curlis

26 Aug 2016

There are a lot of beautiful words to describe Kathy Curlis, but ‘selfless’ might be the best of them.  As a child, she would go to Melbourne Cemetery to tidy up neglected graves, putting flowers on them from local gardens. Later, she spent six months caring for severely handicapped children, before having three children of her own and starting a 25 year career in teaching.  When there were special occasions in the staff room at Box Hill Senior Secondary College, it was Kathy who bought the cards and gifts.

But selfless didn’t mean boring.  Her daughters Skye and Sally describe her as “unabashedly joyous, vivacious and loving.” Young at heart, her car radio was tuned to Triple J, with the volume up loud. 

At the playground with her grandchildren, while the other parents (let alone the grandparents) sat around with phones in one hand and coffee in the other, Kathy would be on top of the monkey bars with the other kids.

Kathy and her husband Harry both loved hiking and Kathy was a tireless walker. When Harry started to flag she would turn to him, usually from a fair distance away, and shout, “Come on Flopsy, you can make it!”

She loved getting out and about by foot, and would often walk up to 5km a day.

At 60, Kathy had taken leave without pay from teaching, toying with the idea of retirement. With five young grandchildren amongst the loving family she had created, there was a lot to look forward to.

And then Kathy died, doing what she loved.

Out walking on the 18th of July, she was on a zebra crossing at the corner of Boronia Road and Mountain Highway in Wantirna.  A car had stopped to let her cross, but a truck driver failed to stop, rear-ending the car and shunting it onto the crossing.  She was taken to hospital, but did not survive the night.

At her funeral, in lieu of flowers, mourners were asked to donate to Victoria Walks.  We are immensely grateful and humbled by this generosity.

At the funeral, the civil celebrant said “there are no easy answers for the tragedy that has taken place.” But in a way, there are.  To anyone who understands road safety, it is clear that the intersection where she died was designed to be dangerous for anyone not in a vehicle. Not consciously perhaps, but designed nonetheless to facilitate high speed vehicle movement over a pedestrian crossing, in a location where drivers are distracted by other traffic.  As usual, it was designed for vehicles – anyone else was an afterthought at best.  Kathy was not the first person to die there – as reported by the Knox Leader, an 83 year old man was killed seven years earlier.  Authorities had been asked to take action, but nothing substantive was done.

Victoria Walks has now taken up the case with VicRoads. They recognise that the slip lane and crossing represent a serious risk and significant changes are required to slow vehicles down and ensure vulnerable road users are protected. They are looking at what they can do. But any changes are already too late.

And of course road design is only part of the picture. We all have an obligation to drive responsibly and watch for people out walking.  As her son Jim said at her funeral:

“I think that Mum would approve of me asking you all to please be the safest driver you can be.”

Kathy Curlis leaves a big hole in her family and community, reminding us of the human cost of the road toll.  The last word goes to Skye:

“Mum taught me how to live and love and I just hope that I will be able to do the same for my two boys without her being around to guide me.”

Post script: Making our streets safer and more appealing for walking is a central part of Victoria Walks’ work. We will soon release the report Safer Road Design for Older Pedestrians, to give guidance to road managers on how this should occur.

If you are seeking support and information about road trauma, you can contact Road Trauma Support Services Victoria (1300 367 797) which is a not-for-profit organisation that provides counselling and support to people impacted by road trauma.