"Get rid of the trucks - just get rid of them," said one Buninyong resident. "Someone's going to get killed," cried another.
It was mid-morning on Saturday. Like an invited but unwelcome guest, the promise of winter had arrived before time. But it wasn't just a chill hanging in the air of Buninyong that morning; there was a mix of disbelief, shock and anger, too.
Just some 18 hours earlier, at around 2.40pm, a B-double truck travelling at excessive speed down the slope of the Midland Highway lost control as it approached the roundabout in the town's centre, which lies in a valley.
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Seemingly unable to engage his brakes, the driver swerved to the opposite lane in an effort to avoid the traffic that was banked-up before him.
In the seconds that followed, the truck collected the front of a small blue car as it thundered through the roundabout before finally crashing into roadworks and a century-old elm tree on Learmonth Street, next to the old post office.
"Only but for the grace of God, no one died," said Bernadette O'Loughlin, a long-term resident. "It was just so very dangerous."
"We were also fortunate we didn't have children coming out of school then," she added, referencing the school crossing on the Midland Highway that services the local primary school - one of the region's largest.
It was a sentiment shared by resident David Coxall (pictured above), whose driveway and fence, remarkably, rank among the only causalities from the accident, along with the historic elm tree and small car.
Though authorities had since removed the truck from the scene, the crash-site - on Saturday morning - remained laden with the smell of spilt diesel, with thick mud and what was left of the elm tree scattered around in a manner reminiscent of cyclone-devasted areas.
"[The truck] was barrelling down the hill. He was lucky because he sort of had somewhere to go, but had there also been oncoming traffic banked-up on this side heading east, it would have been horrific," Mr Coxall said.
"All sorts of things could have been different - what if it'd been a petrol-tanker or a gas-tanker," he added, his question requiring no rejoinder.
Friday's accident marks the second in less than four weeks at the infamous roundabout, resurrecting heated arguments about what's required to ease the constant flow of heavy vehicles through the town's centre and prevent the unthinkable.
To that end, a range of options have been aired over the course of recent years, with a northern or southern bypass, an upgrade to Yankee Flat Road or a new arterial route connecting the Midland Highway and Western Freeway - the so-called eastern link - among the most serious contenders.
That same debate, however, was largely silenced in July 2019 when Regional Roads Victoria released the findings of a small-scale, year-long feasibility study it had commissioned into the proposed eastern link.
The study, which focused almost exclusively on the degree to which an eastern link would divert heavy vehicles travelling between Geelong and Ballarat, concluded fewer than one in five trucks would use the road.
Yet contrary to popular belief, it did not arrive at the conclusion that an eastern link road would forever lack a business case.
"An eastern link would not be a viable investment at this point in time, as it would not achieve the safety outcomes desired by the community," the study said (emphasis added).
In the result, it recommended Regional Roads Victoria consult and work with the Buninyong community on alternative traffic management initiatives aimed at reducing congestion and speed.
Notably, the same study also acknowledged inevitable population growth in Ballarat's west, coupled with the Ballarat Link Road (once complete), would almost inevitably divert higher volumes of heavy vehicles to the Midland Highway through Buninyong.
Since then, population growth in Ballarat has not so much climbed as predicted but exploded, with growth wholly exceeding the very population projections government commonly uses to arrive at critical infrastructure decisions, including the proposed eastern link.
"The volume of trucks coming through is only getting higher and higher," said Buninyong resident Brad Mahoney.
"The community is worried about it because of the way it just does increase the likelihood of serious accidents."
Buninyong itself has not been shielded from marked population growth, with the township increasing in size by at least 20 per cent in recent years. This, too, has added to congestion in the town's centre and raised the stakes of what could occur in the event of another truck collision.
In the minds of residents, it's wholly immaterial whether the two recent truck collisions can rightly be viewed as a symptom of this wider growth or as discrete incidents in themselves.
What's evident, they say, is the obvious scope for something catastrophic to occur should nothing be done to address the problem of uncontrolled truck traffic through the town's centre .
"We're not happy at all," said Mitza Clark, who lives in Buninyong. "What happened yesterday could have been a disaster. The trucks need to be redirected otherwise there's going to be fatality at some stage."
Nevertheless, some uncertainty surrounds the question of what form that change or action should or could take, notwithstanding the open conclusions arrived at in the feasability study. Mr Mahoney, for one, believes there's an absence of easy solutions to the problem.
"I have an opinion on a lot of things but I just don't have an answer for this one," he said, citing the difficulty the area's hilly terrain poses for a potential bypass and the lack of space to accommodate run-offs in the event a truck loses its brakes.
"The simple solution would be to make truck drivers engage a low gear, like they do in places like the Adelaide Hills, but how would you enforce that. All you need is one cowboy and an accident happens."
Whatever the solution, it must be found. At least to that extent, the debate has been irrevocably reignited.
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