In the early hours of a grey drizzly morning when I was 18, I watched two people walk down the road of my village, two people supporting each other, holding one another up, clinging to one another, their faces so ravaged by pain and grief that it was impossible to look away. The rumours were true then; their son, my friend, my beautiful 17 year old friend was dead. The car crash the day before which had killed 4 young men had included him. He had only been driving a few weeks, had only had his car for a few days. He had told me all about it on our last bus journey home together and I had said “be careful, please be careful!” while he enthused about how his life would change. And now he was dead and with him his 3 friends – and the life of the lorry driver who they had hit was changed forever.
My friend wasn’t doing anything wrong; not drunk, not speeding, not being reckless. Just young and new to driving and full of the excitement of being able to drive himself and his mates wherever they wanted to go and not yet experienced enough to have the skill to cope when his car hit a bump in the road unexpectedly and flew out of control, hitting a lorry head on and killing them all instantly. A week later I stood with hundreds of people, his family, his friends and that lorry driver and wondered how life could change so much, in such a split second, that none of us standing there would ever be quite the same. Some of the kids in that room attended 4 funerals in that week, as did the lorry driver. Unthinkable. I remember looking at his parents and begging the universe to never make me go through the pain of losing a child.
A year later I stood at another funeral of another friend. She died when the car driven by her young boyfriend, hit a puddle and skidded. Her head hit the pillar of the door. She died, he walked away. She died and his life was broken into pieces. I remember his face. Haunted by guilt when his only crime was inexperience and bad luck. Those deaths have stayed with me, altered my life immeasurably, so I can’t begin to imagine what they did to the people even closer to them.
I respect the road is about many things. It is about understanding that driving is about being in control of a weapon. It is taking responsibility of 2 tonne of hurtling metal and knowing that if you hit someone and they are smaller than you, they are quite likely to die. If you hit someone larger than you, you are likely to die. It is about understanding that everyone, not just you, is driving a weapon and that humans are fallible, they make mistakes. If you drive too fast and too close, you are trusting that that person is wake enough, alert enough, competent enough and lucky enough to manage anything that happens in front of them. When you drive, you join a dance with new drivers, tired drivers, people who are crying, people with a screaming baby in the back, people who are about to make an error, people rushing to a hospital full of fear and dread. It is about giving enough space to let those things happen safely and about treating people decently if they aren’t perfect.
I’m a cautious driver with a healthy respect for my own ability to make mistakes; I’m not perfect but I try to leave myself space to make errors or react too late. I have my own sort of road rage which I reserve for people who won’t let me do this. I don’t drive slowly but I don’t speed; there are times when I want a sign that lights up in the back of my car to say “Are you trying to kill my children by driving that close?” but I’d equally like a special one that says “thank you” or “my pleasure” or “you go first, I can wait”. I’m infuriated by people who break the simple rules of not overtaking on the inside, assuming that other drivers will be alert enough to spot their stupidity, I’m incensed by people who think that a metre is enough stopping distance when going at 70mph. It is hard, really hard, not to get angry at people who don’t realize that inside my metal weapon are the 5 things most precious to me in my whole life. Hard to accept that people would rather drive hard and fast to get somewhere 2 minutes earlier than make it their mission to ensure my girls reach adulthood.
AXA Respect On The Road is a campaign focused on bringing politeness back to our roads, the same basic humanity we show when we hold a door open for someone, or let them take the first place in a queue at the checkout. It is about giving enough space to each other to stay alive, enough space to make mistakes, enough forgiveness to let it go if someone screws it up. It’s about letting people past, or through the traffic, or off a slip road, or backing off enough to allow people their slips of concentration. It is about understanding that however clever you think you are, when something goes wrong, there is no time at all to react. I’ve been in that situation; in a split second of checking my blind spot on a slip road, someone screeched to a halt in front of me and I hit them. I wasn’t driving fast, or close, but that 20 or 30 metres closed up so quickly that I had no time to do anything. One of the worst things about it, stood at the side of the road, was seeing the jeopardy that my written off car was putting all the other people driving past into. One small unexpected change and everyone is in danger.
Respect on the Road is about remembering the humans inside the boxes and the precious things they carry. It is about modelling manners and road worthy politeness to our children in the hope they will grow up to do the same, staying alive in the way too many others do not. It shouldn’t take a campaign by AXA Car Insurance or anyone else actually, we should just be able to do this. We shouldn’t need to remind people, young or old, that driving is not a computer game and there is no reset button if you screw it up but I’m happy to add my voice to what they want to achieve. It is about giving a nod to a version of the future you’d prefer not to live and living the moment in a way that keeps you and the people around you safe and well and alive. That making small efforts towards change can produce big results.
One of the things I’ve learned very hard in the last few months is that you never know what has just happened to the people around you and that part of being human has to be to accommodate that. A few days ago I drove home listening to the radio; the programme focused on the mothers of two young men who made the wrong choices about getting into a car and as a consequence their families now have to live without them forever. I stuck in the inside lane, tears streaming down my face, unable to turn away from their pain. Because, unluckily for me, I do know how it feels to live life without my son. I held my son as he died only a few months ago. I’ve walked away, held up by my husband after seeing him for the last time. It is a grief and pain that is unimaginable. There were probably people across the country crying to the same radio programme, some of whom will have the rage of knowing that someone, somewhere was to blame, some of them knowing their child made the mistake that killed them. We mothers and fathers with tears on our faces probably drove a little less well while we did so – we’re lucky that the people around us drove carefully. I’m prepared to be late, or further back in the stream of traffic, to try to ensure that I never inflict that dreadful loss on anyone else. I count myself lucky, if that word is appropriate, that I do not have to add blame and guilt to the grief of losing my child.
When I lost my friends, there was no internet; it wasn’t hip or cool or trendy to pay attention to campaigns that mentioned that sticking to some basic rules might keep you alive. I hope that the advent of media that involves kids so thoroughly might have changed that. Axa have produced a Facebook page which you can ‘like’ and join their campaign to help turn small acts of polite thoughtfulness into behaviour that will save lives and help make our roads and our new drivers safer. I take my parenting as seriously as I take my driving but I’m capable of losing my temper when doing both; their Youtube Road Rage Kids Video only too cleverly puts the words and frustration that I sometimes express, into the mouths of little children. If I wouldn’t let my kids be that intolerant of one another, I’ve no excuse to do it too, even when I’m mainly angry because someone has endangered me and my girls. Their other video, CabbieCam expresses the views of some adults about Respect on the Road.
In the end, I care about this campaign enough to write about it, because I know that life can change dreadfully in a split second and that regret is awful. It is beyond terrible to have to live with guilt and grief or the regret of not doing something differently. I lived my early 20’s wishing I had urged my friend harder to drive safely. I’ve lived the last few months wondering if a different decision might have meant my son would be alive now. I know that I put my life and those of my girls into my own hands but also into the hands of others, every time I get into a car. I’m prepared to beg people to remember that too and to teach their young people to grow up treating the responsibility of driving with humanity, if only to spare them the horror of guilt and regret somewhere down the line.
Sponsored Post – the fee from this sponsored post will be donated to our charity fund in memory of our son.