Harry Smith, a 20-year-old forklift driver, woke up in hospital last September with a severe laceration to his aorta, a cut spleen, chipped teeth and two fractured ribs. His six-week recovery was painful and frustrating and required his whole family to help.
Smith, who still has aches and pains from his car accident, had been hit on the passenger side of his 4WD by a driver who failed to stop at a compulsory stop at the intersection of Weedons Ross Rd and Jones Rd, near Rolleston, south of Christchurch. The driver said he hadn’t seen the sign because of heavy fog.
Accidents like Smith’s have a huge impact on the direct victims but also draw in many more people. For emergency staff like paramedics, police and firefighters, it’s a job but not one they can leave behind when they sign off for the day.
When Rolleston Constable Blair Croucher arrived at Smith’s crash he was sure Smith had been killed.
Croucher has attended dozens of serious and fatal crashes just like Smith’s in his seven years in the police and says time does not make it easier.
Rolleston Volunteer Fire Brigade deputy chief fire officer Steve Mann says no matter how good your coping strategies are, you carry a little bit of every fatality with you for the rest of your life.
The cost to the taxpayer is also enormous. According to the New Zealand Transport Agency more than 5000 people have been seriously injured on Canterbury roads since 2000, with more than 700 fatalities.
The Ministry of Transport estimates the total social cost of fatal and injury crashes rose from $3.53 billion in 2014 to $3.79 billion in 2015. This puts the average social cost of road accidents at $4.7m per fatal crash, $912,000 per reported serious crash and $99,000 per reported minor crash.
The only cost on Smith’s mind when he woke up in hospital with blood splattered across his face and his father John beside him, was that he had cost someone their life. It never crossed his mind he might be the victim.
“I was just terrified that I had killed someone. I kind of figured if I’ve hit someone I’ve killed them. If this is what it’s done to me. what have I done to someone else?
Some details of the accident were reported to him later.
For instance, after the collision, the driver who missed the stop sign sprinted to his car and almost suffered serious injuries when he fell into a ditch and banged his head. When he got to Harry’s car he thought he was dead. He told police he was holding Harry’s hand apologising to him when Harry woke up.
The six weeks following the crash were “hell” for Harry. Due to the injury to his aorta he was unable to be left alone, with someone in the family constantly looking after him.
“I could barely feed myself. It changed my attitude for sure. I became a lot more angry, agitated, I almost resented my family for helping me.”
John is just happy his son’s alive.
“They sent out a body bag. You’ve got to remind yourself that he’s alive. I think every parent would say they never want to see one of their children die, it’s not the natural order of things.”
Despite his good fortune, there’s one word Harry hates.
“I hated when people said you’re so lucky. It made me so angry.
“No, I’m not lucky, I’m unlucky, I have just been through a car crash.”
Croucher, who has seen lots of “unlucky” people, arrived at the crash scene to find Harry motionless and “looking at the carnage we automatically assumed the worst”.
“A lot of people think no matter what uniform you’re wearing, whether it’s fire, ambulance or police, that your emotions are soaked into your uniform and once you take that uniform off your emotions disappear and you forget about it. But as we know, it doesn’t.
“It never leaves you. It goes home with you and it stays with you all your career and all your life.”
A recent crash involving three cars and a truck left Croucher in tears.
A car had pulled out in front of a truck without enough time to overtake. The truck clipped the rear of the vehicle, rupturing the fuel tank of the car which burst into flames.
The burning car hit a car in front. The car, occupied by a pregnant woman and a 2-year-old, rolled several times. A fourth car took out a concrete powerpole.
Incredibly all occupants avoided serious injury.
Croucher first heard about the crash from his wife who, along with his three children, had narrowly avoided being the fifth car in the collision.
“The vehicle that overtook and got clipped by the truck missed my family vehicle by half a foot.”
Croucher said his children were “traumatised” when he arrived on the scene
“They’ve seen a car burst into flames, a near miss with mum on-board – they’ve seen myself turn up with the paddock on fire, car on fire.
“My 5-year-old burst into tears when he saw dad turn up. He was afraid dad was going to get hurt or hit by another car.”
The days following the crash were hard, with his son asking him every morning whether he would be going to more crashes and “if dad’s going to be hit by another car”.
Every officer has their own way of coping, says Croucher. He finds talking helpful.
“Whether it’s my colleagues or my wife. I don’t go into great detail but I’ll touch on it. Just expressing your emotions and feelings and what you went through on the day.”
Informing a family member that their loved one has died in a crash is the hardest part of his job, he says.
“I go to the door with everything in my head down pat that I want to say, but the moment that door opens everything in my head disappears.”
The tragic news is either greeted with disbelief, anger or silence.
“It’s an unexpected door knock they’re getting, it’s three or four in the morning, but they know, it’s written all over their face.
“They’ve never had a member of the public knock on their door that early, they know that a door knock at that hour of the morning is never good news.”
Five people lost their lives on Selwyn roads last year. Four of them were not wearing seatbelts.
Croucher says it’s “frustrating” that despite the amount of campaigning and advertising police do, the message does not seem to be getting across.
He says anyone thinking of getting behind the wheel needed to think about their condition and the consequences if they had or caused an accident.
“You have to live with that every day for the rest of your life, every anniversary of the death that comes around, you’re going to have that on your mind.
“Do you want to live the rest of your life knowing that your actions have caused the death of somebody? I know I don’t.”
Rolleston Volunteer Fire Brigade deputy chief fire officer Steve Mann says no matter how good your coping strategies, you carry a little bit of every fatality with you for the rest of your life.
Mann, who is also an intensive care paramedic for St John, has attended well over 40 fatal crashes in his 29 years in emergency services but says there’s one that stands out most.
“It was a two-car crash. The driver of one vehicle was dead and in the other car the mother, father, baby and small child of another family were dead.”
Also in the car was an 8-year-old boy, the sole survivor.
“Just in that one incident he lost his whole family – I always remember that one.”
He says once he arrives on scene he’s “task focused”.
“What’s my job here? What am I going to do? What are my options for cutting these people out?”
It’s not until he’s back in the fire station that the emotions start to get to him.
“Initially you’ve got 110 per cent of your energy concentrated on trying to save the life of that person and it’s very fast-paced, adrenaline dumping time while you’re doing that and it’s very frustrating if your plan for treating that person doesn’t work out.
“We like to be able to save people at the end of the day, that’s what we’re here for and it’s really disheartening when you don’t get that result.”
When he first started in emergency services 29 years ago, he thought he was “resistant” to the effects of attending such a job.
“I didn’t have a family, I thought I was quite robust to these situations.”
Now, with a wife and young children of his own, each crash he attends has more of an impact.
“It certainly makes the incidents harder to deal with. I started relating it to my own family and what it would be like to lose one of them to all the fatalities that I’ve been to in my whole career.
“It just proved to me that no matter how hard you try there’s always emotional baggage that you carry with each of these incidents.”
As he sits on the couch at his station trying to think what his message would be to drivers, he thinks about his colleagues and the toll it has on them, all of a sudden his message is clear.
“Don’t put my team through your death.”
Croucher, Smith and Mann know the well-worn message about safe driving, keeping alert, wearing seat belts might not prevent any serious accidents this Easter. But by speaking out about the true human costs of car accidents, they feel they are at least trying to prevent the tragedies around the corner.
The dead, of course, can’t talk.