By Lauren Ferrone
Published: Wednesday, November 2, 2022
There were 99 fatalities and 894 serious injuries on South Australian roads last year.
Often we only hear about the statistics; the number officially recorded on a computer and routinely plastered across the news.
The victims, survivors and loved ones who’ve experienced road trauma are often faceless – until now.
The driver who made a bad decision
A scar slithers from Daniel Woolley’s skull down to his abdomen like a snake sussing its prey; a permanent reminder of a bad decision he made behind the wheel five years ago.
But Daniel’s injuries go much deeper than the surface of his skin. The 39-year-old Barossa Valley man, who admits he once had little regard for the road rules, now lives with a traumatic brain injury after he was T-boned running a give-way sign on Good Friday in 2017.
I thought I was tough, but I had no idea what being tough was until I had to go through rehabilitation as a result of my bad decisions.
Daniel’s car flipped multiple times. He had a 20-minute seizure at the scene of the crash, and then several more while being airlifted from the Yorke Peninsula to the Royal Adelaide Hospital.
“While my car was rolling, my brain got shaken up,” he says. “I also ruptured my diaphragm, and the contents of my guts were forced up into my chest cavity, collapsing my lungs.”
While the other car’s occupants were thankfully not seriously injured – or worse, killed – Daniel was put on life support and given a 30 per cent chance of survival. If he had any hope of making it out alive, doctors said he’d most likely be in a vegetative state.
Luckily, Daniel was wearing his seatbelt which saved his life, but the trauma – both physical and mental – has changed him.
He has no recollection of his crash and has lost all memories from almost a year before the collision to about three months after the incident. He only knows what the police and his family have told him.
I will never be the same again – I’m still grieving for my losses.
Daniel no longer lives life in the fast lane. He’s unsteady on his feet and walks with a limp. Mentally, Daniel struggles daily with his concentration, memory and anxiety. But, thanks to his mum Mary and wife Carly, who he met after the crash, he’s never given up.
“My friends came in to see me a few times, but the longer I was in hospital, the less they came, until they eventually stopped,” he says.
“My family were there every day. Mum massaged and moved every joint in my hands, arms, feet and legs so they didn’t seize up.”
While the doctors advised Daniel’s mum to place him into a nursing home, that was never an option. After four months at Hampstead Brain Injury Rehabilitation Unit, Daniel moved back in with his parents.
“If your child’s sick, you care for them. You don’t abandon them. Giving up was never on the cards,” Mary says.
Following Daniel’s crash, Mary retired from her role as a teacher to care for her adult son. She returned to work three years later.
From a reckless to a reformed driver, Daniel admits he has learnt the hard way. He has made it through because of the support from his family and Lifetime Support Authority – an organisation assisting people who sustain serious injuries in motor vehicle crashes on SA roads.
“I’ve worked hard and nicknamed myself the ‘rule follower’,” Daniel says. “I don’t drink alcohol or take drugs, and I follow the road rules.”
Today, Daniel, who is back behind the wheel after intensive driver education and assessment, educates young drivers about his long journey through road trauma.
“It’s not awesome to drive recklessly,” he says. “I tell them [young drivers] before they drive or get in the car with someone, ask whether their driving will keep you safe on the road.
“Hospitals, jails and cemeteries are full of people who didn’t ask this question.”
The sole survivor
As the sole survivor of a fatal crash that claimed the lives of her grandparents in 2017, Rebekah Pergold’s message to other road users is simple: “Always carry a spare tyre because you never know when you’ll have a flat”.
“I was taking Granny and Papa for a late Christmas lunch in Lyndoch. My car had a flat tyre and Papa said he’d drive [his car],” Rebekah remembers. “We had a beautiful lunch and were really enjoying the day as we got back in the car to come home.
“As Papa was going out onto the road, he must have not seen the car coming or misjudged the timing.”
That’s the last memory Rebekah has before her brain shutdown. She woke up 10 days later with an acquired brain injury, a lacerated liver, broken pelvis and ribs, and collapsed lungs. That’s the day she began the fight of her life.
Despite everyone’s perceptions from TV soaps, you don’t just wake up from a coma. I didn’t have first thoughts, as I don’t remember the first two to three weeks.
Today, Rebekah copes with support from Lifetime Support Authority. Her mum Lib, who lost her dad in the crash, remembers all too well the tragedy which unfolded that day.
“I didn’t really have time to think to be honest. I didn’t have the time to absorb the fact my father was gone because Rebekah was in such a bad way,” Lib says.
As a former ICU nurse, Lib has cared for many road trauma patients with brain injuries, but her experience has never hit quite this close to home.
“It’s not just about the people who die on the roads; it’s about the people who survive, and Rebekah is a testament to what’s left behind.”
Since the crash, every day has been challenging according to Rebekah. “Apparently the brain makes 35,000 decisions per day,” Rebekah says. “My brain is injured so it’s incapable of achieving this level of cognitive function.”
Finding a balance between living a normal life without becoming too overwhelmed and fatigued is a huge task.
“I’ve had complete meltdowns in public, but at the same time I’ve had to try hard not to protect myself too much by hiding away from joy in life.”
Sharing these challenges and joy with Rebekah is her husband Simon, who found out about the crash by watching it unfold on the news.
“I turned the news on and recognised Rebekah’s Papa’s car and that’s how I heard what happened,” he says. The sheer terror of frantically calling police to find out if his wife was alive is still traumatic for Simon.
Perhaps even more gutwrenching was how his wife looked at him when she woke from her induced coma.
I don’t think she recognised me – she was very different.
From barely recognising her husband’s face to facing their trauma together, it’s been a long journey back to each other.
“She gets tired very quickly and needs regular brain breaks to recharge and calm her down to allow her to continue what we are doing,” Simon says.
Nevertheless, Rebekah, Simon and Lib do something each year on the day of the crash – 27 January.
“We have lunch and look on the bright side and are grateful for the time we had, as well as the fact I am alive,” Rebekah says. “I was 45 when the accident happened. To still have two grandparents at that age is pretty incredible.”
While Rebekah admits she still thinks how different life would be if she didn’t have a flat tyre and if she had driven instead of her Papa, her trauma does have a silver lining.
“I’ve learnt to be resilient, patient, grateful, assertive, positive, and to be accepting of who I am now. This is my new normal.”
The grieving parents
“You don’t bury your child.” It’s a phrase we hear often and cross our fingers it’ll never apply to us. Sadly, that’s exactly what Peter McGuinness and his wife Melissa were forced to do nearly a decade ago.
The couple’s 18-year-old son Jordan had been under the influence of alcohol and cannabis when he drove home from his first work Christmas party in Brisbane in 2012.
He crashed at speed into a broken-down car on the side of the road, and was killed, along with four of the five occupants in the other vehicle.
“It [grief] is permanently with you,” Peter says.
We’ve been unable to commemorate our son for obvious reasons; we don’t seek sympathy. The sympathy belongs to his victims. What we seek is change.
It took years of grappling with the tragedy before the couple made it their mission to ensure their son’s actions aren’t repeated.
In 2017, Peter and Melissa – who recently spoke at RAA’s Street Smart High, a road safety event for teens – founded YOU CHOOSE Youth Road Safety. This not-for-profit organisation takes an innovative peer-advocacy approach to preventing youth road trauma.
YOU CHOOSE has delivered its award-winning programs to more than 175,000 young Australians in schools across Australia.
Through his talks with hundreds of young people each week, Peter reflects on the type of conversation he’d have with his son, if given another chance.
“I would talk with him using what we learn from teens about the powerful influences on their decisions and behaviours,” he says. “Love and protecting the people they profess to care about the most is most important.
“Those instincts can be used to protect each other, their family, and their community from preventable tragedies by making and advocating good choices as passengers and drivers.”
According to Peter, Australians grow up within a “legacy culture that passively accepts reckless driving as intrinsic to growing up”.
“This generation is better than that,” he says. While Peter and Melissa accept Jordan’s guilt and culpability, they love and forgive him – although they understand why others can’t.
“If just one friend influences another to make a lifesaving choice, we’ll feel like we’ve done something constructive knowing another family won’t get the shattering death knock like Jordan’s victims’ families did, and like we did,” Peter says.
RAA Senior Manager for Safety and Infrastructure Charles Mountain says the overarching message from each of these stories isn’t simply to drive safely every time we get behind the wheel.
“It’s a wake-up call that road trauma doesn’t discriminate,” Mr Mountain says. “No-one is immune to the effects of this type of trauma.”
The face of road trauma is the young man who made a bad decision, the parents who grieve for their child, the woman who survived while her loved ones met a different fate, and the emergency services crew tasked with cutting lifeless bodies from twisted metal.
Look in the mirror: the face of road trauma could be yours.
If you or a loved one has experienced road trauma and want to talk, reach out to the Road Trauma of South Australia for its free counselling service or call 0400 705 066.