Monday, July 11, 2005

The Agony of Causing Accidental Death

It’s every driver’s nightmare to cause the death of another person. We don’t like to contemplate it, but it’s a possibility every time we get behind the wheel of a car.

I killed a woman pedestrian when I was 17, borrowing my dad’s car to drive to work on a quiet Sunday morning. I was approaching the crossroad atop a hill when my attention was caught by a taxi waiting to pull out. I passed him safely but kept watching him in my rear view mirror; and even though I had crested the hill my fixation on the taxi prevented me from easing up on the accelerator.

When I looked forwards, I saw an elderly lady in a green suit directly ahead of me who was two-thirds of the way across the road on a pedestrian crossing. I immediately hit the brakes causing her to look up in horror. With absolutely no hope of success, she tried to outrun me.

It was April 18th, 1971. Her name was Margaret Healy and she was 77 years old.

The coroner recorded an open verdict, which technically meant the case remained open for another 7 years, but I was neither charged nor convicted of an offence. I speculate as to whether it would have been easier if I had been prosecuted. It sometimes feels as though the trauma went on longer than it should because I had no opportunity to pay for the enormity of what I had done. Ultimately, I had to come up with a punishment for myself which is, I suppose, why I ended up in a psychiatric hospital and tried to commit suicide.

A lot of people will say, quite correctly, that I am not the victim. I’m not the one who died and have no cause to feel sorry for myself. And they are right. But whenever I hear of a pedestrian being killed, I wonder how the driver is and how they will be affected for the rest of their life.

We’re often shocked by hit-and-run drivers. It seems so callous to drive away from an accident; but before passing judgement I have to remind myself that I too almost left the scene. When my car came to a stop there was no evidence to confirm the horror of what had just happened. I couldn’t see her, I couldn’t hear her. I so desperately needed to believe it wasn’t true that I was on the brink of convincing myself it hadn’t really happened when the taxi-driver ran over to say he had called for an ambulance. I then got out, covered her with a blanket and slumped against the car near to where she was lying.

But I wasn’t alone in wanting to deny what had happened. In this society we are encouraged not to feel guilt. So many people told me I shouldn’t “blame myself.” Even Margaret Healy’s brother said that to me with the kindest of intentions.

But a voice inside me was saying that it’s not possible to kill someone and pretend that it’s all OK.

From the moment it happened, everything changed. I had no idea who I was anymore or what my place in the world was. At every waking moment I was haunted by the question, “Do I have the right to continue living now that I have caused a death?”

It was a sickeningly heavy burden to realise that nobody in my family or in my circle of friends could help me answer this question. It only served to offer further proof that I was doomed to live a life apart. My mum couldn’t help; she was way out of her depth. Her way of dealing with it was to declare that it wouldn’t affect us, and refuse to speak about it. My father carried a sense of guilt because he had intended to drive me to work that morning but instead decided to have a lie-in. Just a few months afterwards he vanished, never again to contact the family until 10 years later when he reached out from beyond the grave via his Will. The devastating effect on my family was further compounded by the accident happening on my sister’s 12th birthday; hence her special day now always carries the taint of this shattering moment.

For years, not a day went past when I didn’t think about the accident. I’m 50 but still cannot bring myself to drive a car. I tried once, 10 years after the accident when my daughter was a baby and we lived in an isolated place, but if my husband wasn’t in the car I‘d have a panic attack and start shaking and retching. After two weeks I was such a wreck I gave up.

Eventually, I was able to reach the point where I realised the only way I could value my life was by acknowledging that what happened formed me into the person I am today. It is central to who I now am.

I haven’t, in the current jargon, achieved ‘closure’. The subject will never be closed – it continues to evolve. I began a relationship with Margaret Healy on the day she died and she will be with me forever.

What happened to me is not uncommon. There are all kinds of fatal accidents that occur in the home, at work, on roads. But there’s very little discussion about it. Since my accident a further 52,000 pedestrians have died on British roads yet we know almost nothing about how the drivers, or their families, were affected. However, from the stories that are told to me, it doesn’t seem to matter whether the driver is guilty or not; the sense of shock and guilt is overwhelming, often leading to suicide, breakdown, or social isolation.

My Book, To Cause A Death – the aftermath of an accidental killing, was published last year by Clairview Books(£9.95. ISBN 1 902636 55 4) to great media acclaim because it dared to break the silence about this terrible subject. But more voices are needed. Let me know your thoughts, feelings, experiences.

'This book is needed...a fascinating read' The Scotsman 22/07/04

'Fascinating... There but for the Grace of God' Daily Telegraph 30/06/04

'Very moving... very necessary' Woman's Hour 30/06/04

'An important book... beautifully written' This Morning ITV 12/07/04

'Couldn't put it down... gripping' BBC London 04/07/04

'Compelling' Radio Europe 09/07/04

'We've all almost been there' BBC Five Live 06/07/04