The faces behind the numbers: survivors of traffic collisions
When you hear about the number of road deaths and serious injuries every year, it's easy to just think of them as a statistic. However, the truth is that there is a trail of devastation caused by every crash. Laura Owens is communications manager at Headway East London – a charity supporting people affected by brain injury. Here she tells us of the people they work with whose lives have been seriously affected by car crashes.
In 2014 64 serious injuries occurred on UK roads every day. To many people this news will be surprising. We hear a lot about the number of road-related deaths (there were five daily last year) and rightly so – it is a vital issue that needs significant attention. However it does mean that this first set of statistics is not widely discussed in the public forum. This is despite the fact that that number actually rose by 5% from 2013 – totalling 22,708 serious injuries on the roads.
As a charity supporting people affected by brain injury, we are all too aware of these statistics. Traffic accidents are one of the main causes of traumatic brain injuries, and last year the number of head injury admissions to hospitals increased by 6%. Of course it would be untrue to suggest all reported serious injuries would involve some form of brain injury – they won't. But there is an important point to be made about the level of support and care that many of these survivors will need moving forward, regardless of the nature of their injury.
At our community centre we welcome 150 survivors of brain injury each week to socialise and take part in therapies, groups and occupational projects. A high percentage of our members sustained their brain injuries after being involved in road incidents.
Mum of two Sam was a passenger in a car in 2006. She wasn't wearing a seatbelt when the driver behind crashed into them, rolling the vehicle and sending Sam out of an open window: "I was in a coma for a couple of months. I had a bolt coming out of my head. Because of the pressure, they had to take a bit of my skull out. I've got a titanium plate there now. It's a big plate – it covers quite a big area of my head."
In 2006, soul singer Barrie was crossing a road he had crossed hundreds of times before. Despite the lights being on red, a hit-and-run driver knocked Barrie over, fracturing his skull: "I was in a coma for six weeks, hospital for 17 weeks.... In East London they don't stop half the time, they go straight through. Don't look at the lights, look at the driver!"
Due to the nature of Sam and Barrie's injuries, both have experienced a number of temporary and permanent effects. For some survivors of serious injury, these are immediately visible but they can sometimes be difficult to recognise.
Sam reflects: "I walk with a bit of a limp. My voice is different, and my eyes – one is bigger than the other...." but she also experienced memory loss, balance issues, difficulties with problem-solving – all of which may not be obvious to the people she meets.
Barrie, meanwhile, found his memory greatly affected: "After I came out of hospital I was using typed lyrics, typed arrangements, which I never ever used before. Before, I would go and sing anywhere with anyone. But the brain rewires itself as a different thing.... People around me could see things that I was doing wrong. Cognitively, it was odd. I was repeating things over and over again, interrupting people". He initially returned to work in financial services, but had to leave after six months.
Some survivors have taken a great interest in promoting road safety as a result of their experiences. Martin has started working with a theatre education project to help raise awareness of road safety. He draws from his own experience as a passenger in a car in 2010, where the designated driver had been drinking and subsequently crashed. He was in a coma for a month and was paralysed on one side – over the course of the next year he was treated in five different hospitals and one rehabilitation centre. Martin has a clear message for audiences when he speaks with the project: "What I say is that we can't save you, we can only help you to save your own life. It's strong life advice worth listening to. If I can stop one person causing an accident then I'll be happy."
For many other survivors, the priority is merely recovery. This can involve regaining lost skills, rebuilding relationships, finding new interests and developing an acceptance for a different way of life. This final point is also true for the family, friends and carers of these survivors.
So often we see things in very distinct terms: life and death are most definitely two of these and are often applied when thinking about road safety. You'll either be lucky and live, or you will die. But the areas of grey that are formed when a person does survive, but with serious injuries, can no longer be ignored. By highlighting these alarming statistics, we not only encourage road safety, but we also give a human face to the large number of people who need ongoing support and services post injury. For these people it's often a difficult journey that follows, so let's make sure yours is at the very least safe.
To read more about Sam and Barrie's experiences, please visit their life stories project Who Are You Now?
I was seriously injured in May this year after being hit head, which is why I am now a member of Brake. I am from Liverpool but spent 3 years driving for a coach company out of Gatwick, regularly driving into London Victoria with up to 49 passengers.
On at least two occasions my coach was hit by a car that failed to stop, though thankfully no one was injured. I took the time to report both incidents to the Metropolitan Police, completing the necessary forms, however, on both occasions I received a letter informing me no further action would be taken against the other driver as the damage was minimal.
Do you agree that this sends out the wrong message to drivers? Should the Police not follow up every incident? No consequences to me sends out the wrong message, and as always it is the innocent party who ends up at a loss.