On a dark country lane in East Yorkshire in 1983, I discovered what happens to the human body when it is hit by a car travelling at 80 km per hour.
I was 16 years old. Part-way through the exams at the end of my secondary school education (although I planned to stay on for 2 years to study advanced level qualifications). There was a gap of a few days between exams so I decided to take a break from studying.
My 16th birthday was in April, two months earlier. With money I received I bought a 50cc Garelli moped. I had friends that were passionate about motorbikes. Not me. The moped was just a means of getting from A to B. It sounded like a mosquito and had a top speed of 40 km per hour. It was a pretty cute though. Bright red, styled in Italy.
The area was rural. My school catchment area covered a radius of about 30km. Consequently many of my school friends didn’t live nearby. Public transport was limited. To visit friends I mostly relied on lifts from my dad. The moped gave me precious independence.
That night I rode to my friend Gary’s house, a few kilometres away. We watched a movie. It was the time when video recorders were becoming popular. Getting together with friends to watch a video was still a novelty.
I pulled the throttle back, almost hitting 40 km per hour. There were only a few cars on the road. I heard a single honk of a car horn behind me. I checked myself – I was correctly positioned in the road, my lights were working. The car pulled alongside me. I looked over to see my dad smiling and waving. He held up a white paper package. Fish and chips, a treat for our supper. I gave him a thumbs up as he accelerated away. His lights disappeared into the distance. It would only take me another 10 minutes to get home.
The longest part of the journey was a 3 km stretch between two villages, Preston and Wyton. The road was bordered by fields of wheat, corn, potatoes and bright yellow rapeseed. I approached an S-bend close to Wyton. I’d ridden through this bend many times before. A known accident blackspot. I slowed down to take extra care. There were bushes along the edge of the road so I couldn’t see the headlights of the car approaching from the opposite direction. The driver of the car couldn’t see me either.
The 19-year-old driver thought the road was empty. He didn’t reduce his speed. Instead he cut the corner, driving on the wrong side of the road. My side of the road.
The car headlights were a sudden, blinding flash. White light was all around me. I gasped, eyes wide. My body froze.
Later, the Police told me I had managed to brake. My tyres left tell-tale skid marks on the road. This, along with other forensic evidence, enabled the police to piece together what happened that night. They calculated the exact point of impact. My tyre marks were 35 centimetres from the kerb on my side of the road. I was positioned exactly where I should have been. And yet it was wrong place, wrong time.
I remember the moment before the car hit me, but not the impact itself. When I became conscious I heard the voices of strangers. ‘My god, look at his legs!‘ one whispered anxiously. My legs were twisted and bent into unnatural angles. I was in pain of course but the overwhelming feeling was confusion.
My vision was limited by the window of my helmet. I look up at a black sky. Unable to move my head.
There was a strange feeling of thick, stiff strands sticking into the back of my legs, through my jeans. The ground was uneven, undulating. Reaching around, I realised It was wheat. I was lying in a wheat field across the deep furrows. Harvesting left the stubble still in the ground, ready to be burned off. ‘Take it easy son. You’ve been hit by a car but you’re going to be OK’. Another voice. ‘Take my helmet off!’ I yelled. I disliked wearing the helmet. Lying on the ground unable to move I felt claustrophobic.
One of the strangers did as I asked. The wheat stubble parted as I gently put my head back, resting it on the soil. I took a deep breath. The strangers urged me to lie still. With the helmet gone I felt better able to do this.
The drivers of two passing cars had stopped to help me. Fortunately one of them was an off duty ambulance driver.
I reached inside my jacket. My left arm was the only limb I could move. There was pain in every part of my body. Instinctively I reached over to my right arm. I was wearing a thick, Aran sweater. I felt the texture of the cable knit as I put my hand around my right bicep. The sensation wasn’t normal. It felt like the arm belonged to another person. It was numb.
‘Don’t worry son. We’re gonna get you to the hospital. The ambulance will be here soon. Should I phone your parents so they can come to the hospital? Can you tell me their phone number?’
‘I live with my dad’ I said. I told him the phone number. My parents had separated 5 years earlier. My mum lived with her husband in another village nearby. I called out my mum’s phone number too. ‘You must phone them both. Please phone them both!’ I repeated. Since my parent’s separation I had become mediator, go-between and peacekeeper. I managed to fulfil this role even in great pain, lying in a wheat field with my legs bent into unnatural angles. It was important to treat them equally. Both must receive a phone call.
My dad had arrived home safely. The fish and chips were in the oven to keep warm. He began to worry. I was taking too long. I should be home by now. He backed the car out of the garage again to come looking for me.
As he approached the S-bend he saw the lights of cars parked badly on the grassy bank at the side of the road. It was obvious there had been an incident. In a panic, he pulled up and ran over to ask what had happened. ‘It was a young kid on a moped. Hit by a car‘ someone said. He knew it was me. Even before he saw the twisted wreck of the red Garelli moped in the ditch.
The ambulance had left moments earlier with me inside. He found out which hospital I’d been taken to then rushed to be with me.
In the ambulance, I slipped in and out of consciousness. The paramedics said reassuring words over the noisy siren. A bright light shone my face. I gave in to my helplessness and closed my eyes as the paramedics did their work.