Author Archives: audreymw

A Life in the Day: Conchita Wurst, the Austrian drag queen

The Austrian drag queen Tom Neuwirth, aka Conchita Wurst, 25, talks about life after winning this year’s Eurovision

I have two types of day: a laid-back day when I’m just me, Tom, and I can just get up and put on a pair of jeans. Or a day when I’m Conchita, my stage persona, and I’ll get up early to get ready. Either way, the first thing I’ll do is make coffee and have a good breakfast of boiled eggs and toast.

I live in the centre of Vienna with my friend, Matthew Steurer, who’s a hair stylist, but since winning the Eurovision, I’ve been doing a fair bit of travelling, whether it’s to appear on TV talk shows, do interviews or perform in the evening somewhere.

Of course, as Conchita, it takes me ages to get ready and for that I always put music on. Sometimes the outfit will even end up reflecting what I’m listening to — if it’s 1980s hits I’ll end up with way more glitter than I intended. I have the curled eyelashes and everything, but for a drag queen I actually try and keep my make-up quite understated.

Obviously, I’m in the bearded-lady corner, something I’ve had since I was 21, and I accentuate it using a make-up brush and eye shadow. I then put on one of my seven wigs and my nails are always done with Shellac — I keep them simple because you’ll never get on a Vogue cover with claws.

It’s still so weird for me to think that I won the Eurovision this year. A minute after we started leading on the scoreboard I said to my friends: “You better take a picture of the scores now because it’s going to change very soon.” But it didn’t. When I realised I had won, I couldn’t believe it… and I couldn’t stop crying. My big plan now is to get signed and release an album of songs that are being written for me.

If I need to catch a flight, the thing I find so funny is that when I’m going through security and the beep goes off, the security men and women always look confused as to who should search me. I don’t care who I get, but if it’s a woman, I always tell her I love her hair, and if it’s a man, I just flirt with him.

Rushing around, I often don’t stop for lunch, but if I do, I can really eat whatever I want because I never put on weight. I don’t work out either — I’ve already got arms like Madonna. From an early age I knew I was different. I wanted to be friends with the girls at school and do things like wear their clothes and play with their hair, but I never thought of kissing any of them. Some of the kids were very mean to me, but I would remember what my grandmother said to me: “Tom, always be yourself.”

I was born in Gmunden, a town in Upper Austria. When I was a bit older my parents had a hotel in Bad Mitterndorf, a winter resort in the heart of Austria. I was 14 when I moved to the city of Graz to study fashion, but in my third year I auditioned for an Austrian talent show called Starmania and won a place in the final. I didn’t win it so I finished my fashion course and graduated.

I was 21 when I first began hosting a burlesque show. It was at an underground club in Vienna and that’s when I created Conchita Wurst — I wanted to be a diva in the spotlight myself! Most of my performances now are in the evening, and my friend, Tamara Mascara, who’s also a drag queen, often helps me with my wardrobe. She’s even figured out the best underwear for drag queens, including these thickly padded bras from H&M. I also wear a G-string that’s designed in such a way that everything is where it should be. I don’t want to worry about panty lines and I want my butt to look as good as possible.

I think I speak for all drag queens when I say it’s annoying when people refer to us as “he” instead of “she”. But being gay and dressing like a woman doesn’t mean I want to be a woman — I don’t. I’m single at the moment, I broke up with my last boyfriend before Eurovision. Luckily, it wasn’t in a dramatic way — though I can certainly do dramatic!

I have a close group of friends, so after I’ve finished performing I love to go out for dinner. A great place to eat in Vienna is Motto am Fluss — you get the best tafelspitz [boiled beef broth in horseradish sauce] there. But my favourite place to eat is my mother’s kitchen.

When I get back in from a long day, I’ll fall to sleep very quickly. It’s all been quite surreal this past year, but the one thing I always remember is to be true to myself and respect everyone else for doing the same. To me, that’s what life is all about.

Labour pledges increase in penalty for phone-driving

3 August 2014
The Sunday Times
George Arbuthnott and Audrey Ward

Labour has backed the Sunday Times campaign of “Don’t phone and drive” by pledging to increase the penalties if it wins next year’s general election.

Richard Burden, the shadow roads minister, accused the government of being “asleep at the wheel” for standing by as the number of accidents caused by mobile phone use rose in each of the past five years.

Last month Patrick McLoughlin, the transport secretary, announced he was considering increasing the typical penalty from three points to six.

Burden said that extra penalty points as well as an automatic one-year ban — matching the tariff for drink-driving — would be on the table if there is a Labour government. “The penalties have got to be appropriate,” he said.

“Increasing the number of points will be part of that and doubling it to six points sounds sensible. It needs to reflect the seriousness of the offence.”

Burden also pledged to fulfil our campaign’s other aim of a public awareness crusade to highlight the dangers. There has not been such a government-backed campaign since 2009, a clear result of the cutting of the Think! road safety budget from £19m in 2008-9 to £3.6m last year.

Burden criticised the reduction of traffic police numbers by 12% in the five years to 2012, with some forces undergoing cuts of up to 44%, according to a survey by Brake, the road safety charity.

“Driving up and down the motorway checking who is on their mobile phone doesn’t feel like a priority job at the time,” he said.

“But if that person using that mobile then ploughs into another vehicle,we will all see why it should have been a priority.”

Burden pledged to set a clear target to cut deaths and serious injuries on the road, probably to be a one-third reduction by 2020.

His comments come days after Marina Usaceva, 31, a mother of one, was jailed for six years after she killed Sukhdeep Singh Johal, 27, a science graduate, while using two mobile phones at the wheel of her Jaguar.

Phone crackdown backed by drivers

27 July 2014

Audrey Ward and George Arbuthnott
The Sunday Times

A quarter of British motorists have spoken on a handheld phone or read texts while driving, despite more than half believing that doing so is as dangerous as driving under the influence of drink or drugs.

According to a YouGov survey for The Sunday Times, 72% of drivers are in favour of increasing the typical current penalty of three points on a licence to six for using a handheld mobile while driving.

Patrick McLoughlin, the transport secretary, announced this month that he was considering such a change and described the number of people injured and killed by drivers using phones as “absolutely appalling”.

The YouGov poll found that 28% of motorists had answered a call while behind the wheel and 26% had read a text or an email. More than nine in ten, 93%, believe doing either is dangerous.

Three in five think using a mobile in a moving vehicle is as dangerous as, or worse than, drink driving and 55% believe it is as dangerous as driving while under the influence of drugs. Almost a third, 30%, believe the option of imposing a custodial sentence should be available to magistrates.

The results come as police have been told to seize mobile phones from drivers at crash scenes so they can check if they were used before any accident.

The guidance has been issued by Suzette Davenport, Gloucestershire’s chief constable and head of roads policing for the Association of Chief Police Officers.

Ed Morrow, from the road safety charity Brake, welcomed the move. “Offenders need to know they will be caught, they will be prosecuted and there will be serious consequences,” he said.

The Sunday Times is urging the government to increase the penalties for using a mobile phone while driving and to launch a public awareness campaign on the issue.

Edmund King, president of the AA motoring association, said a one-year ban should be considered standard for using a mobile phone behind the wheel. “When I drive down the M25 I am surrounded by people with phones glued to their ear,” he said.

“They are idiots. There needs to be a police crackdown and then we should look at a year’s ban.”

Any change in the law will come too late for Imogen Cauthery, 27, who has suffered from epilepsy and learning difficulties since being hit by a car driven by a man using his mobile phone in June 1996.

Cauthery’s life was saved by a passing doctor but the then nine-year-old suffered a brain haemorrhage and was in a coma for 10 days. The driver was fined £500 but it took 11 years for Cauthery to win a six-figure compensation payout.

She thinks those who use a phone while driving should lose their licence but described the doubling of points as “a very good first step. When I see people using a phone, taking their licence for granted, I get a really angry feeling,” she said.

“It’s awful that so many drivers think it’s OK to use their phone at the wheel when someone could pay the price of their life for that call or text.”

Killed for the sake of a text

The Sunday Times is leading a new campaign calling for tough penalties on drivers caught using phones

George Arbuthnott and Audrey Ward

The summer of 2010 was drawing to a close as Jemma O’Sullivan rearranged her bedroom in Newcastle upon Tyne to make space on the shelves and in the drawers. Her boyfriend, Alan Godfrey, was leaving his flat in Reading to move in with her after a year-and-a-half of a long-distance relationship.

“It came to the point that couples reach — what’s the next stage? We wanted to be able to do things couples do on a whim rather than plan things out every fortnight,” said Godfrey, who had secured a lecturing position at Newcastle University.

On September 3 O’Sullivan helped him to load his possessions into their rental van and they set off mid-morning in buoyant mood. “I knew she was the girl for me and we were at the beginning of our new life,” he said.

They were just north of Sheffield when Godfrey pulled onto a slip road on the M18 and joined a queue of traffic. They chatted as music played on the radio. Godfrey’s last recollection of O’Sullivan is of her basking in the sunshine that was streaming through the window.

Suddenly a lorry slammed into the back of their van, pushing it under a truck in front. O’Sullivan, a 22- year- old pharmacy student, was killed instantly. Godfrey, then 27, was knocked unconscious. Both had to be cut from the wreckage and he suffered serious head injuries.

Godfrey has no recollection of the accident itself, only regaining consciousness at the hospital. “I remember flashes — the doctor holding my hand, the police coming in to tell me Jem had been killed, me squeezing the doctor’s hand,” he said softly.

He passed out from the shock and was devastated when he learnt later that O’Sullivan’s body was so badly injured that he could not even see her one last time.

Police found Christopher Kane, 67, the driver of the lorry that hit them, had been composing a text message while travelling at 55mph. He was jailed for five years after admitting causing death by dangerous driving. Godfrey fought a catch in his throat as he recounted coming face to face with Kane in court.

“He was no more than 6ft away from me — the person who had stolen someone so special from myself and Jemma’s family. It was a very surreal experience, because you know that you can’t jump over the dock and you can’t do anything to hurt this guy. There was a lot of anger but I suppose there is a level of restraint that you just have to show.”

More than 500 people a year are killed or seriously injured because drivers have been distracted. Last week Patrick McLoughlin, the transport secretary, announced he was considering doubling the punishment for those caught using a handheld mobile phone while driving to six penalty points.

“The amount of casualties has been absolutely appalling. We’ve got to change this,” McLoughlin said. If the proposals become law, convicted motorists who have been qualified for less than two years would be banned from driving, because for them the threshold is six penalty points rather than 12. Any driver who has used a handheld phone at the wheel could also be fined up to £4,000 by magistrates. Godfrey said he wanted something positive to come out of O’Sullivan’s death.

“There’s a certain stigma around drink-driving. The same stigma needs to be attached to the use of mobile phones while driving,” he said.

“You are impairing your senses when you drink and drive, and equally you impair your senses when you use a mobile phone. If you’re driving a car and texting, you need to be aware that you are not only putting your own life at risk but you are putting the people around you at risk as well.”

The Sunday Times revealed last month that tougher penalties were being considered by the government after the newspaper presented Robert Goodwill, the road safety minister, with research showing that mobile phone use slowed reactions more than cannabis or alcohol.

This newspaper is now launching a campaign calling not only for the penalties to be increased, but also for the government to begin a public awareness campaign on the issue and for the police to make routine checks on drivers’ phone records at crash scenes.

The government has done little to address the problem. Its last public awareness campaign to highlight the dangers, Dying to Take the Call, was dropped in 2009. It warned drivers they were four times more likely to crash if they used a mobile phone.

That same year the government also halted its research on the prevalence of the offence. Its 2009 figures, obtained from surveys in southeast England, showed that the number of drivers using a phone at the wheel had almost doubled in a year, from 1.5% to 2.9%.

Last August fines were increased to £100 from £60, which had been the punishment since 2007. Edmund King, president of the AA, called for a police crackdown followed by a potential move to a six-month ban.

The Magistrates’ Association and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents said that the government should look at toughening the penalties further.

FOR the parents of Gary Livingstone, the government procrastination over the past few years is a source of great frustration. Their son, a 42-year-old prison officer who cycled to work every day, was also killed by a driver using his mobile phone in 2008.

“It was the week before Christmas,” said Noel Livingstone, his father. “Gary often used the cycle path but it was covered in moss and because it was December it was icy. He had come off his bike a couple of times, so he decided he would put more flashing lights on his bike, use his safety helmet and take the main carriageway. As he cycled along a lorry driver mowed him down.”

Steven Welsh, the driver, had been writing and receiving texts for 15 minutes before hitting Gary on the A50 near Doveridge in Derbyshire as the cyclist headed back to the home he shared with his parents in Uttoxeter, Staffordshire.

“I remember thinking he was late coming home,” said Joanna Livingstone, Gary’s mother. “He should have been back at about 9.30pm. At about 10.50pm there was a knock on the door and it was the police. They’d come to say there’d been an accident and that Gary was involved.

“I immediately asked, ‘Is he hurt?’ The policeman said, ‘I’m sorry, it’s worse than that.’” Gary’s mother could not take in what he was saying. “You don’t mean to tell me he’s been killed?” she said. She had to break the news to her two other sons on the phone.

She was incensed when she heard that the driver had been texting: “I just couldn’t believe that someone could be so reckless.”

Her voice softened as she spoke of her son. “It’s been six years and I think about it every day and I visit his grave every week. Unless you’ve been through it, it’s very hard to explain. People are very kind and say, ‘I know how you feel.’ They don’t really.”

She could hardly look at Welsh in court, although he did express remorse. He was sentenced to almost three years and released after serving half that time.

NICK FREEMAN, a lawyer nicknamed “Mr Loophole” for his ability to help defendants escape punishment for driving offences, is among the biggest critics of police efforts to deal with the problem of phone use at the wheel. He accuses them of failing to check drivers’ phones after accidents unless they have resulted in death or serious injury.

Suzette Davenport, the head of roads policing at the Association of Chief Police Officers, said cuts had led chief constables to make some “really difficult decisions” about delivering services. However, she insisted the issue was being taken seriously along with speeding, seatbelts and drink or drug-driving.

The Sunday Times asked Davenport to talk to Freeman about his recommendations and after their discussion she has issued advice to officers to check phones at the roadside. “It would assist the interests of justice if officers could use those checks as part of the process of ascertaining whether or not an offence has been committed,” she said.

There was a time when Paul Carvin, a teacher, would beep his horn if he saw someone using their phone at the wheel. Now, eight years after the death of his wife, Zoë, who was killed by a driver on the phone, he still bristles at the sight but no longer intervenes.

“I can feel the blood boil in me,” he said. “Most people don’t see using a mobile phone at the wheel as a bad thing. They think, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, I am perfectly able to manage the car.’”

It was a crisp February afternoon when he got a call from his brother-in-law to say there had been a car accident involving his wife and her mother. He rushed home to await details and let their children Emily, then 11, and Ben, then 13, into the house after school. As he got to the front door, two police cars pulled up outside. “I knew then that something dreadful had happened,” he said.

The police explained that Zoë, 42, had died instantly and her mother, Veronica, was in hospital. “You cannot believe how physically your body can change when you hear that. I literally could not stand up.”

Paul Carvin had to compose himself to tell his children. “From where our house is, you can see them coming up the road home. I remember Emily walking up the road, laughing and joking with her friends; I knew that I was going to have to tell her what had happened and her world would never be the same. And then an hour later, when Ben came home after football practice, I had to do the same again.”

The accident had been caused by Andrew Crisp, a 26-year-old lorry driver who had been so distracted on his phone that he failed to see a set of temporary traffic lights on the A1 near Denwick in Northumberland, or the snaking queue of cars ahead of him.

“That first night we all slept in the bed together,” said Paul Carvin, his voice choking. “Up until that moment, our children couldn’t have asked for a better childhood. Zoë was always thinking about making things special — she liked to buy nice clothes for Emily or organise lovely birthday parties for the children.”

Paul Carvin is desperately hoping for tougher penalties that would deter drivers from using their phone at the wheel, but for now he is consoled by his memory of the last moments he had with his wife.

“I had seen her in the morning before I went to work, given her a kiss, said goodbye, said I love you . . . which made it better in a way.”

Apps to help drivers keep their eyes on the road
Otter
Free, Android, BlackBerry
Helps drivers resist the temptation to take a call by silencing mobile phones when travelling at more than 10mph.

Safely Go
Free, Android
Allows calls and texts from three “VIP” contacts and tells everyone else you’re on the road through automatic text.

Jarvis — Texting Robot
Free, Android
Offers to read out and answer driver’s text messages through a Siri- style personal assistant.

No Texting and Driving
£2.55, Android
Reads text messages aloud and sends auto-response while on the road.

iRezQ
Free, iPhone, Android
Kicks into action during an accident, alerting emergency services and other drivers.

Texts worse than drink-driving

Audrey Ward and George Arbuthnott
8 June 2013

The Sunday Times

Tougher penalties for using mobile phones while driving are being considered by the government after research showed that it slowed a driver’s reactions more than drink or drugs.

Robert Goodwill, the road safety minister, said he would take up the issue with the Ministry of Justice after The Sunday Times showed him the results of a study by the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL).

It found that a driver’s reaction times slowed by 46% when he or she was making a call on a hand-held mobile, by 37% when texting while driving and by 27% during hands-free calls.

For those on the drink-drive limit of 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood, reaction times were reduced by 13%. For those who had used cannabis it was 21%. Goodwill said: “I will see if we need to change the penalties.”

More than 500 people are killed or seriously injured each year as a result of driver distraction. Penalties for driving while making a call or sending a text message range from three points and a £100 fine to a one-year ban.

Hugh Bladon, treasurer of the Alliance of British Drivers, said it was “such a stupid thing to do”.

Nick Freeman, the lawyer nicknamed Mr Loophole for winning acquittals on motoring offences, said: “Impose a one-year ban and you’ll get rid of it … can you imagine being off the road for a year, just because you sent a quick text? Forget it.”

An RAC poll found that half of drivers aged 18 to 24 texted while driving. A TRL study found the use of mobile phones by drivers in Surrey had more than doubled from 2009 to 2.6% in 2012.

Texting at the wheel

Audrey Ward and George Arbuthnott
8 June 2014
The Sunday Times

Hundreds of people are seriously injured or killed each year in accidents involving the use of mobile phones at the wheel. Are you still using yours?

Nazan Fennell’s face is gaunt, her body sparrow-like. Final demands are scattered on her kitchen table, and discarded rubbish — flattened cardboard packages, flyers and stuffed black bags — forms a large mound in the corner of the room. Her shell-shocked appearance is partly explained by the concoction of drugs she’s been taking since she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

She recalls the moment, 2½ years ago, when the police came to tell her that her youngest daughter, Hope, had been run over by a lorry and killed. Nazan had darted around the house frantically, gathering photos of Hope. “Look how beautiful she is, she’s only 13, she can’t be dead,” she told them. But they were adamant it was her. “It was like somebody put a bomb in the middle of my existence and just blew it up,” Nazan says.

The driver, Darren Foster, had been distracted as he drove his truck at speeds of up to 55mph through Kings Heath, Birmingham, on the afternoon of November 7, 2011. He had been arguing with his girlfriend in a flurry of text messages. In 20 minutes, they had exchanged 11 heated texts.

At the same time, Hope, a pupil at Queensbridge School, was saying goodbye to her friends and making her way home on her bicycle — a gift for her 13th birthday a few weeks earlier. Foster, who had been stationary at a pedestrian crossing, shifted into gear as the traffic lights turned green. The inquest into Hope’s death was told that CCTV footage showed Foster had pulled away on a green light before Hope cycled her bike in front of him.

He didn’t see the teenager because of a blind spot in the lorry, and his 18-ton vehicle drove over her. Her hair became ensnared in the axles and she was dragged into the undercarriage. Her mashed-up bike was spat out of the other side. Hope was dragged along as horrified schoolchildren and other bystanders screamed. After someone ran out in front of Foster, 39, and shouted at him to stop, he got out of the lorry and finally realised what had happened. A group of men tried to lift one side of the vehicle and free Hope, but it was too late. Nobody could save her. She died on the road.

It came to light that Foster, anxious that his text conversation would be used as evidence against him, had climbed back into his lorry and deleted the messages while Hope lay dying under his vehicle. Foster pleaded guilty to dangerous driving and perverting the course of justice. He was sentenced to six months in prison and was released after serving three of them.

Nazan says the revelations about Foster’s texting at the wheel only came about because of her own persistence — she asked question after question of the police. “Was he stopped, was he just rolling slowly, did he check his mirrors?” Only then, she says, did they begin to delve into Foster’s mobile-phone usage. “To them, accidents are normal — a lorry runs over a child or an elderly person, it’s just something that happens,” she says.

“They told me there’d been a terrible accident, a tragedy. He just couldn’t see her. There was nothing he could have done, he was very shaken — ‘He’s traumatised,’ they said. I completely refuse to use the word ‘accident’. When they came back with the information, it was as if they were doing me a great favour by carrying out this thorough investigation to find out if he was responsible or not.”

Nazan’s fury was further stoked when she heard the extent of Foster’s texting. “It was non-stop — he wasn’t looking at the road at all, at any time,” she says. She believes Foster’s use of a mobile phone prevented him from observing the complex procedure of mirror-checking that HGV drivers should follow when stopped at a crossing.

Even now, with the medication, Nazan can’t control the images and sounds that spring into her mind. “He just rolled over her, he drove about 100ft with her trapped in the machine. The word ‘trapped’ has caused me a lot of trauma,” she says. “I hear her screaming, sometimes, when I’m trying to go to sleep.”

Hope is one of hundreds of people who have been killed or seriously injured on Britain’s roads in recent years in accidents involving the use of mobile phones at the wheel. Figures from the Department for Transport reveal that 378 accidents specifically involving mobile phone use were reported in 2012 — more than any year on record. Those accidents resulted in 548 casualties, including

17 deaths. But experts believe this figure gives a false impression of the true scale of the problem, as many cases involving phones are classed instead as an “in-vehicle distraction”. In-vehicle distractions led to 9,012 accidents and 196 deaths between 2010 and 2012.

We are in the grip of an addiction to technology.

In the rush to text, tweet, update our Facebook status or find our position on a map, many of us are increasingly reaching for our mobiles from behind the wheel, with scant regard for the law, or the risks. In one survey, by a private think tank, the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL), the number of people spotted using mobiles while driving in Surrey alone increased from 1.2% in 2009 to 2.6% in 2012. And in an RAC poll of 2,000 people, almost half of drivers aged 18 to 24 admitted to texting at the wheel. The AA estimates that millions of us are committing the crime every day. Yet how many of us consider how our driving is being impaired by doing so?

The TRL has tested the effect that making calls, texting and using Facebook on a smartphone have on the driving skills of groups of 17- to 24-year-old motorists. The tests were compared with previous studies into the adverse effects of alcohol and cannabis, and the results were stark. Reaction times slowed by 13% when drivers were at the drink-drive limit; by 21% when they were high on cannabis; by 26.5% when speaking on a hands-free mobile; and by 37% when texting at the wheel. The biggest impairment occurred when drivers were using a handheld phone — their reaction times slowed by an astonishing 46%. The study also found that a driver is more than twice as likely to swerve across the road while texting than if he or she is high on cannabis.

Concerns over the rising death toll have led to a rare meeting of minds among road-safety campaigners, a drivers’ lobbying group and victims’ families, all of whom accuse the government of imposing inadequate penalties. Even the Alliance of British Drivers, a lobby group acting on behalf of our “beleaguered” motorists, is calling for a year-long ban. “People who text should frankly have their hands cut off at the wrist, it’s such a stupid thing to do,” said its treasurer, Hugh Bladon.

It became illegal to use a mobile at the wheel a decade ago, when drivers would receive a £30 fine. In 2007 the punishment was increased to three penalty points and a £60 fine, and last August it went up to £100, rising to a possible £1,000 on conviction in court. The Alliance of British Drivers is now calling for the penalty to be a year’s ban — the same punishment for drink-driving.

In the wake of our investigation, Robert Goodwill MP, the road-safety minister, has pledged to speak to the Ministry of Justice about toughening penalties. But his promises will provide scant consolation to those who have already lost loved ones on Britain’s roads.

The death of Helen Adams’s mother, Maureen Waites, triggered a devastating chain reaction. Waites, a mother of two, was heading to Newcastle airport to collect relatives when her Citroën was rammed from behind by a VW Polo. She was sent crashing into a barrier and died instantly.

The driver of the Polo, Rachel Begg, a bank clerk from Northumberland, had used her mobile phone nine times in the 15 minutes leading up to the crash. Begg, 19, was on her way home from a date with a boyfriend in Newcastle’s West End on the night of November 12, 2006. As she drove at 70mph on a dual carriageway she exchanged five text messages and had four phone conversations.

Adams recounts the agony of that day and beyond.

“I wanted to die. I had nothing to live for. My ability to function is not what it would have been if I’d had my mum here. She was my best friend.”

As Adams took on the role of carer for her distraught father, who had lost his wife of 50 years, her relationship with her husband broke down. “I had to go to work all day, then go to see to my dad and do all his laundry and groceries. I put my dad first. The anger I felt also contributed to the destruction of my marriage.”

Even now the hostility she feels towards Begg hasn’t dissipated. “She didn’t show any remorse at all throughout the proceedings,” says Adams, bitterly. “To this day I’m angry, resentful, and my life has been ruined as a result of losing my mum.”

At first, Begg denied using her mobile, but her phone records exposed the lie. Like Darren Foster, she had deleted her text messages. Begg was sentenced to four years for causing death by dangerous driving and was banned from driving for five years. She appealed and her sentence was reduced to three years.

Adams and her husband separated, and, with her father increasingly frail, she struggled to juggle a full-time career with looking after her four-year-old daughter, Emily.

Eight years on from the crash, Adams continues to contemplate the “what-ifs”. “What would life have been like if it hadn’t happened? Would I still be married? Would I still be in full-time employment? My little girl has been deprived of a grandma who would have adored her.”

She has one burning question to which she hasn’t had an answer. “What was so important for Begg that she couldn’t have pulled over at the time to take the calls? It cost me and my family something that was just priceless.”

The family of Jordan Wickington know only too well the content of the text message that was read seconds before their 19-year-old son was killed. Kiera Coultas’s phone beeped some time after 7am on February 7, 2007.

“I hope ur up, have no bread if you want a sandwich, just let me know,” the message read. Coultas, a hotel manager from Southampton, was on her way to collect her four-year-old daughter from her estranged husband and he had sent her the text. As her BMW approached a junction, she composed a reply.

Up ahead, Jordan, from Netley Abbey, Hampshire, was cycling to the construction site on which he worked as a scaffolder. Just as he jumped a red light, and before Coultas got the chance to press “send”, her BMW smashed into his yellow bike. Jordan hit her windscreen and was catapulted into the air.

When Daniel Hickman, Jordan’s half-brother, and his family were told about the text, and that Coultas had been driving at 45mph in a 30mph zone before Jordan was hit, they were inconsolable. “We had thought it was just one of those horrible accidents that happen. It was harrowing to hear what had really occurred,” says Hickman.

Jordan’s family were in court when Coultas was convicted of dangerous driving and sentenced to a four-year prison term, but Hickman feels that her punishment was light compared with what he and his family have endured. “We’re living our own sentence,” he says.

Britain’s most renowned motoring lawyer, Nick Freeman — known as “Mr Loophole” for his skill in harnessing legal intricacies to help clients escape conviction — says mobile phone use is the biggest threat to life on the roads. Although he is currently defending three people embroiled in death-by-dangerous-driving cases involving mobile phones, he passionately believes that those caught on their phones while driving should, at the very least, receive the same penalty as drink-drivers — a one-year ban.

“We compartmentalise it from drink and drugs, which we know is morally reprehensible and dangerous,” he says. “Impose that ban and you’ll get rid of it — 95% of people are not going to take the risk. Can you imagine being off the road for a year, just because you sent a quick text — ‘I love u’? Forget it. You’re getting a lot of decent non-criminal people involved in these sorts of incidents because the deterrent isn’t strong enough.”

Freeman justifies his work by arguing that everyone has the right to the best possible defence and, by exposing the loopholes, he is showing where the law needs to be tightened to ensure the perpetrators are brought to justice.

In September last year, Freeman wrote to Patrick McLoughlin, the transport secretary, requesting a meeting so he could outline his case for increasing the penalty. The Department for Transport declined the offer, stating that the government had conducted a consultation on the issue in 2012 and had “no plans” to make any changes. “They treated me with contempt,” Freeman says. “They masquerade under this helmet of road safety, but the big problem is, it’s not a vote-winner. It’s not in the government’s interest to seriously start removing people from the road, because it’s such a prevalent offence.”

Edmund King, president of the AA, is calling for a police crackdown followed by a potential move to a six-month ban, while the Magistrates’ Association and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents agree that the government should look at toughening the penalties. When The Sunday Times contacted McLoughlin to put forward these views, he said: “Using a mobile phone while driving is dangerous and it can ruin lives, so I’m absolutely determined that we take strong action to crack down on it.”

The road-safety minister, Robert Goodwill, called on the police to raise their game and review the priority they give the crime. “The best deterrent for this kind of dangerous behaviour is the certainty of being detected,” he said. Goodwill has also promised he will make a renewed attempt to hammer home the message to the public through the government’s Think! campaign.

The last official public awareness drive in the UK, Dying to Take the Call, was conducted as far back as 2007.

In other countries, similar anti text-drive campaigns have made waves. Last year, the celebrated German director Werner Herzog made a short film warning of the dangers of texting at the wheel. Commissioned by AT&T, America’s largest landline and mobile phone provider, the film, From One Second to the Next, makes for difficult viewing. It has been screened in 40,000 high schools across the United States and went viral online.

Herzog focused on four accidents, some of them fatal. The surviving victims, their families and those who were texting at the wheel open up to the director. One of the subjects is Chandler Gerber, who killed two children and a teenager seconds after he sent a text to his wife that read “I love you”. In the documentary, he recalls his panic at discovering what he’d done and his desperate wish to turn back time. “I’m just a young guy. I’ve got a wife, you know, a daughter on the way. This couldn’t happen to me. That can’t be real. I had to have just dreamt that… I wish so bad I could go back to that day and change my focus.”

Freeman, who has represented hundreds of clients in phone-drive cases, also believes the police need to shape up. Typically, he says, officers only investigate accidents that result in a serious injury or fatality, and in 50% of the minor cases that are pursued they fail to make roadside checks of the suspect’s phone. He says this frequent oversight, combined with the mobile phone legislation containing several loopholes, results in 80% of the cases that reach court ending in acquittal.

One such example involved the comedian Jimmy Carr, who faced being hit with a £60 fine and three penalty points after police saw him using his mobile behind the wheel of his Bentley in January 2009. He escaped a conviction because he said he was using the phone as a Dictaphone to record a joke. His lawyer, Freeman, argued that the law regarding mobile phones refers to them being used as two-way devices and, as Dictaphones are not interactive, Carr’s actions were no worse than checking the time.

Following his acquittal, the comedian said it would be “inappropriate” to repeat the joke, emphasising that the use of mobiles while driving was “serious”. “They didn’t check [the phone] at the roadside,” said Freeman. “If you’re an officer, you’d want to hear the joke, wouldn’t you? I would say it’s slapdash.”

King, the AA president, said that an estimated 20% reduction in dedicated traffic police over the past decade has resulted in fewer drivers being caught. Between May 2012 and August of last year, the number of British motorists with points on their licence for using a mobile phone or being otherwise distracted dropped by 14%, from 677,545 to 583,686.

“It hasn’t been a priority,” King said. “We need to send out a warning to drivers that the police forces will have a dedicated crackdown, the way they do with drink driving at Christmas. They need to get out there, set themselves up over bridges, spot the cars and pull over every single driver seen with a phone.”

For Nazan Fennell — who worked as a drugs counsellor before her daughter’s death — talking about her daughter is almost too painful. “Hope was impressive — the way she held herself, she was polite yet firm, full of personality and charisma,” she says. “She’d started learning the guitar and was just at that age of collecting lip gloss. She loved hanging around with her girlfriends, going into Boots and picking out make-up.”

She believes that drivers should have to switch off their mobile phones in cars, by law. “There should be stricter sentences to match the gravity of the crime and the gravity of the loss for the family. I’ll continue campaigning, it’s what keeps me alive. I’m a fighter and I’ll fight until I see some results. I’ve handled the situation by trying to fix something, so that my daughter did not die in vain.”

100 cars. 10 minutes

2 February 2014
The Sunday Times

While firefighters worked to free people trapped in their cars, medical staff treated close to 200 more. Miraculously, nobody was killed. Here, the drivers and emergency workers relive the impact

During the morning rush hour on Thursday, September 5, 2013, 100 cars piled into each other on the Sheppey Crossing, a bridge that links the Isle of Sheppey with the mainland of Kent. A further 53 cars were caught up in the accident but were left undamaged. It started around 7.15am and continued for 10 minutes as cars, lorries and transporters ploughed into each other in dense fog. Vehicles were trapped in a tangle of crushed metal and broken glass.

Firefighters freed six people from their cars and scores more were treated by medical staff; eight were seriously injured and 35 others were treated for minor injuries in hospital. The crash was one of the worst seen on Britain’s roads.

1 Martin Stammers, 45, was one of the first drivers caught up in the crash. He was travelling with his son, Jay, 18

At 7.15 am, as Jay and I drove to work, there was a white blanket of fog in front of us. I was feeling anxious as we reached the bridge. Visibility was just 20 yards and it seemed like my white Audi was the only car on the road.

Suddenly a car appeared directly in frontof me. I hit the brakes and swerved to avoid it. I managed to squeeze through the tiny gap between the car and the central reservation and brought my car to a stop. A deadly silence followed. I got out of the car and discovered that the vehicle I’d avoided was one of four that had crashed. Seconds later, the silence was broken by the sound of screeching car tyres, glass breaking and the boom of metal on metal. More cars were ramming into the back of each other. It was surreal.

Jay and I went to offer help to the people in front of us who were standing about in shock. Luckily, none of them were badly injured. Soon after, I spotted a car driving on the other side of the central reservation. I was worried there would be another accident, so I ran over and waved frantically at the oncoming vehicles.

An ambulance showed up, followed by a police car. I started to walk back down by the line of cars. There were cars up in the air, cars under lorries, cars squashed between cars. I was worried about the possibility of cars catching fire and the kids on their way to school. We could see people lying on the road. One lady was crying. She told me all the cars from behind just kept hitting her. She had thought she was going to die. A young girl kept saying: “Look at my car, it’s all smashed up.”

Shock set in and I told a police officer that I needed to go. I was able to drive off because my car was parked ahead of the line of crashed vehicles. When we were on our way I phoned Kent FM to ask them to warn other drivers about the accident, and they put out an alert. Once I arrived at work I got a phone call from my mum. I couldn’t talk to her; Jay and I were both crying by then. That night we drove home over the bridge, which was a bit eerie. I’ll never forget the sound of the vehicles crashing.

2 Andrew Birchmore, a 25-year-old teacher, escaped through a rear window of his car, seconds before a lorry ploughed into it

I left my home in Minster around 7.30am — plenty of time to get to work, or so I thought. As I came over the brow of the bridge I was doing 40-50mph. I could make out loads of brake lights and when the car in front of me jerked to a halt I knew I wasn’t going to be able to stop in time. I braked, prepared for impact and smashed into the car.

My head hit the steering wheel and the airbag inflated. I panicked. I thought my car was going to catch fire. It filled up with dust and began to make funny noises, so I turned off the engine. The doors were tightly wedged and I couldn’t get out, so I tried to open the electric windows but they didn’t work with the engine off. I managed to scramble out through one of the manually operated windows in the back. Seconds later, a lorry slammed into my car.

People looked stunned. I went to check on the driver in front of me. He had chest pains and blood was coming out of his ear. His wife and son were travelling in a separate car behind him. They ran past the smashed vehicles and were hysterical by the time they spotted him. Within 10 minutes the police, the fire brigade and paramedics had arrived and he was cut out of the car and lifted through the roof.

I saw a pregnant woman being cut out of her car and heard about another woman who opened the door without checking behind her, and it was taken off by another out-of-control car. I saw a motorcyclist pinned under a lorry and a car squashed like a concertina, the windscreen folded. One guy with a two-seater car said he took his seat belt off to get out, right after he was hit, but as he did so, he got hit and thrown about again. I heard that someone else had to have their arm amputated.

I called home and told my little sister to tell my dad to avoid the bridge. Later my mum found out, and she got very upset.

When the sun came out and burnt off the fog I could see the carnage; it was haunting. I was surprised that nobody died in the accident. The front of my green Peugeot had caved in and the engine was hanging out.

In the afternoon, I climbed back into my car to get my belongings. The cars were dragged away by recovery vehicles and I was dropped back to the island. I was suffering from back and neck ache and was treated at Minster Hospital. I had to take a few days off. It wasn’t what I’d planned for the first week of my new job.

3 Catherine Aherne, 28, was travelling to London with her husband and nine-month-old daughter

As my we were coming down the lane from Eastchurch [on the Isle of Sheppey] in our blue Polo, I had my Enya CD playing calming music. Thank God I wasn’t listening to anything fast-paced, because that would have made me drive faster.

As we went over the top bridge a gentleman came running towards us, waving his arms, so I slowed down. A van appeared in front of me and his brake and hazard lights came on. I hit the brakes and swung into the right lane to avoid crashing into the back of him.

We came to a stop and my husband jumped out. I lifted my nine-month-old daughter out of her baby seat and into my arms. I heard the screeching behind us. I waited as the sound of crushing and creaking metal continued. Fear set in. Is it safe to be here? Do we get out of the car and go to the other side of the road where the traffic is still moving? Can I smell fuel? Is there a leak? Could there be an explosion?

The emergency services arrived around 8am and asked us to vacate our car and cross over to the central reservation, down to the bottom of the bridge while we waited for the wreckage to be cleared. Close to 100 vehicles had crashed in front of us and about 60 were caught up in the accident behind. We were in a bubble of 10-15 cars that were undamaged. Almost bang in the middle, without the bang.

Tarpaulin was being laid out and my first thought was: “They’re going to put dead bodies on that.” I just kept choking up and my husband kept saying: “Pull yourself together.” When the fog lifted around 9.15am people started to gasp. It was a relief to hear groaning and see moving, living bodies.

Although paramedics had given me a blanket in the morning, by the early afternoon I was almost stripping my daughter off because of the heat. Everyone was under the general consensus that we should have driven slower. I was doing 40-45mph, but we should have been crawling along at 20-30mph. Some said that if there were lights on the bridge, it would have helped, but the fog was so dense you couldn’t even see fog lights in front of you, let alone any other type of lights.

At 1.30pm we meandered through the crashed vehicles back to our car and drove off. It seems a miracle that we came off unscathed and our little Polo wasn’t crushed. We’ve since swapped it for a nice, big family car.

4 Clare Rudd, 41, is a call handler with the South East Coast Ambulance Service. Her team initially dispatched two ambulances to the scene before they realised the gravity of the situation

One of our new dispatchers took the call about the crash. It was described as a pile-up of 24 cars. At that point we had no idea what was going on. We initially dispatched two ambulances but soon afterwards the police contacted us to say that about 150 cars were involved and help was needed.

We sent about 34 resources to the scene, including a doctor who went in a car, both of our critical care paramedics unit — ambulances with specially trained staff — and our paramedic practitioners, who deal with minor injuries. We also sent our hazardous rapid-response team; they have specialists with big vehicles carrying pop-up tents. We knew that once the fog lifted, there was potential for people to suffer from sunstroke or dehydration so they needed shelter.

The accident couldn’t have happened at a better time. All the newly clocked in, fresh crews were being sent out in fully equipped vehicles. Had it happened at the other end of the day, it would have been a lot harder to deal with.

5 Chris Stamp, 52, is the senior operations manager for Kent and Medway, South East Coast Ambulance Service. He was on the ground overseeing the ambulance crews

I’ve been in the service for 25 years and this was probably the biggest incident I’ve attended to. When I approached the bridge I could see a mile and a half of cars crashed into each other and a large group of people being treated by paramedics.

Imagine taking a paper box and squashing it: that gives you an idea of what the cars looked like. But the design of vehicles was significant in so much as more people weren’t injured. You look at a car and think “nobody will get out of that”, but people do because they’re built with safety cages, restraints and airbags. All those things helped to reduce the injuries.

I established a triage area to examine and prioritise patients based on their injuries. Those who had to be cut out of their vehicles were moved to this area. They were secured and carried on long flat boards, to protect their spines. We walked other uninjured people to an area where we could keep them in relative safety.

People had a variety of injuries, such as broken bones, spinal injuries and damage to internal organs but it was clear from the beginning that there were two priority patients. One had a head injury and both had serious chest injuries. They had open wounds and there was a lot of blood. Our critical care paramedics treated those patients.

It was a very hot day and people had to wait a long time to be allowed back to their vehicles. Part way through the incident our focus moved from the patients who had been directly involved in the crash to those with chronic illnesses such as asthma or bronchitis, and to the vulnerable who needed attention. The paramedic practitioners looked after about 150 of those. We had to physically check each one of them to make sure that their condition didn’t change; people can become dehydrated very quickly, especially the elderly and the young. I arranged for them to walk through and eyeball every single patient.

6 Neil Ryder, 44, has worked with the fire services for almost 30 years. He and his team freed people trapped in their vehicles

Walking onto the bridge was like stepping onto a film set; it was like a scene from a Hollywood blockbuster. You could see smashed cars and walking wounded.

In my job you have to get your mind into a place where you can start dealing with possible leaks, extractions, heavy goods vehicles carrying dangerous substances, vehicles on fire. After an accident like this one, we tend to walk quickly through the wreckage to find out who is injured, and who needs to be cut out of their vehicle. In some cases we just rip doors off their vehicles, a bit of brute strength is required, but nine times out of 10 we use our hydraulic rescue equipment: hydraulic cutters, rams and pedal cutters.

We relied on six special vehicles carrying the cutting equipment. The first person we rescued that day was a man. His wife was there pointing him out so we knew he was in trouble. He wasn’t badly injured but was complaining of chest injuries. I remember him holding his chest and his arm. We reassured him. We cut into his door and removed parts of it so we could get a spinal board inside the vehicle. We moved him onto the board and worked with the ambulance service to move him across the mangled car wreck onto the hard shoulder.

The most difficult part of the job was rescuing a gentleman who was pinned in by a car, a car transporter and an open-backed truck. It took a while to get to him because of where he was in the accident. Our crew had to climb over vehicles, and there was dew on the cars from the fog, so it was very slippy.

Some people were trapped by a vehicle that was crushed and squashed around them, so the roof needed to be taken off. We explained there would be loud noises, bangs and crashing. We covered them with soft and hard protection; a sheet to protect them from falling glass and a hard cover to protect them while we cut into the metal. Someone was looking down on everyone that day. The fact that nobody was killed is unbelievable.

7 Julia Farley is a nurse at Rochester Prison and a volunteer with Dogs Lost. She reunited Boycie, a staffordshire terrier, with his family after he jumped out of his owner’s mangled van

One of my friends is a Dogs Lost co-ordinator and she messaged me that morning on Facebook to tell me she’d had a call about Boycie, a dark brindle staffordshire terrier. He had been travelling in the back of his owner’s van and had gone missing in the wake of the accident. It was the owner’s daughter who contacted my friend. Her father had been badly injured in the accident and he and his wife had been taken to hospital and she was very concerned about the dog.

I arranged to meet with another volunteer and her sniffer dog. Together we went to pick up an item belonging to Boycie. Around 10.30am, after our tracker dog took a few sniffs, we drove to the scene.

We saw mangled cars and lorries and I was frightened that we wouldn’t find Boycie — dogs tend to run off and hide when these things happen. We spoke to a police officer and explained why we were there.

Soon after, we discovered that a dog matching Boycie’s description had been found hiding in one of the crashed cars by a fireman. The officer arranged for us to go to the fire engine where he was being looked after. The little thing was clearly very stressed and we tried to give him water because he had been in the sun for quite a while. We checked the photos on Facebook to make sure he was indeed Boycie and my fellow volunteer confirmed it with her chip scanner.

The couple’s daughter lives on the island, near Halfway. Once we got to her house, Boycie got out of the car so fast we just knew he was at the right place. The daughter choked up when she saw him and made a huge fuss. As he was most likely thrown forward on impact, he was taken to the vet, who said he was fine but shocked and dehydrated. I had an update the next day to say he spent the night on the sofa, had some steak and was feeling a lot better.

8 Adrian Clee, 46, is a programme director with The Salvation Army Church. He was on hand to offer food and drink to those involved in the crash

I had a phone call from the emergency planning team at Kent County Council around 10am to see if we could get our emergency vehicle to the scene. I grabbed a fellow volunteer and we were there 40 minutes later. The fog had lifted so I could see the emergency services and swathes of people milling around and a huge number of vehicles, all crushed together on the bridge.

It was a very hot day so we erected a pop-up gazebo to give people shelter. There were no shops nearby so we took along loads of water, cold drinks, chocolate, crisps and Cup-a-Soups and set up a tea-and-coffee station. We’ve never gone through so much so quickly. We carry 25 containers full of water, and by the end of the afternoon we were coming to the end of that. Luckily, the Red Cross and St John’s Ambulance were also on hand with more water.

There were young mums with young children desperate for baby food, so we improvised with biscuits and milk and made up a basic snack. It was a real learning curve for us because it was one of the biggest crashes we’ve been involved with. We never used to carry baby food or nappies, but now we do.

People were getting hot and frustrated after waiting for such a long time. They were starting to reflect on the fact that the accident could have been a lot worse. Many were paying tribute to a lorry driver who had parked his lorry across the bridge to stop more people from crashing.

We had a bit of a laugh and a joke with people, and tried to take their minds off the situation. If there was anything we could do to help, we did, such as plugging people’s phones into our onboard chargers for a bit. Suddenly, around 3pm, the police called a load of people together and told them to go back to their car if it could be driven. Within the space of 20 minutes, most people had disappeared.

9 Peter Orsman, 39, a senior matron at Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother Hospital, Margate, was in his second day at his new job. The hospital treated 12 of those injured in the accident

There always seems to be a breakdown of communication during these kinds of incidents. When the ambulances come in they tell you hundreds of people are dying. You never really know what you’re going to get. Our first patient arrived at 10am and clarification came around 10.30am, when the doctors at the scene called us. They explained the situation and told us we’d be getting 12 casualties.

Although the accident happened early in the morning, it took a long time for the first patients to arrive because the ambulance services were triaging them at the scene. Midway Hospital was the main receiving hospital for patients, but they soon reached capacity, which meant the ambulance services needed to look elsewhere.

The patients we treated in the A&E department were mostly commuters. They arrived on spinal boards. It takes five people to take someone off the board, which is quite a drain on resources. After that they were examined and sent for X-rays.

The most badly injured was a man who went to the minor injury centre in Canterbury. He had abdominal trauma and was taken straight in by the surgeons. I saw broken arms and legs, but we didn’t get any blood or open wounds. We had a really badly injured guy who was seen by the orthopaedic surgeon, and he was went home with both arms in plaster.

Nobody was crying out in pain when they came in, probably because they arrived hours after the accident. Some were actually laughing and even quite jolly! There was a sense of camaraderie about, and all the patients went home that same day.

10 Inspector Martin Stevens, 46, who heads the Serious Collision Investigation Unit at Kent Police, is leading the investigation into the accident

As I approached the scene around 8.20am, there was a huge amount of controlled chaos. Most of the public involved were walking down the bridge to a safety point. A number of fire trucks were there and people were being cut out of their cars.

The scene was unsafe for us to work in, in terms of an investigation, as it was still in the rescue phase. The priority was to ensure that everyone was safe before any investigation could be carried out. The collision had started at the bottom of the bridge so the first 60 to 70 vehicles were the worst of the damaged.

We were incredibly surprised that there were no fatalities, given the number of badly impacted vehicles. The other thing that surprised me was there had been no fire. If that had happened, you can imagine how bad it would have been for those who had been trapped. Everyone knew how lucky they were to survive.

After making sure everyone was fine, the next thing I had to do was number all the vehicles sequentially. There were 100 damaged ones and 153 when you took into account those not damaged but trapped at the scene.

Then we called in vehicle-recovery agents to clear the bridge and we implemented a conveyor-belt system where one vehicle was removed at a time. It was a slow process but it worked well. I left the scene around 5pm.

In the past 10 years we’ve had a couple of large collisions, but this was certainly the biggest. Our investigation has proved that there is sufficient evidence to prosecute 32 drivers for failing to drive with due care and attention and for travelling at speed despite low visibility. Rather than go through the process of taking people to court, we’ve offered them the chance to go on a National Driver Alertness Course.

Conjoined twins

Parting Gift – Ruby and Rosie were more than identical twins. At birth they were conjoined, sharing vital organs and undergoing radical surgery. Audrey Ward reports on their extraordinary lives — together and apart. Portraits: Laura Pannack

3 November 2013

The Sunday Times Magazine
Continue reading

On sticks and crutches, the Yorkshire hens hobble to recovery

In their first interview a gravely injured bride-to-be and her friends tell Audrey Ward how they are rebuilding their lives after a horrific bus crash
 
25 August 2013

The Sunday Times

Sarah Johnson, blonde curls piled on her head, tentatively approaches the balloon-strewn stage. As she hands over her crutches, or “sticks” as she calls them, and takes aim at the dartboard, you would never guess that three months earlier she was fighting for her life.

It takes some guts for a beginner to compete against Dennis “the Menace” Priestly, the two-time world darts champion, in front of a room of 300 people, but that is nothing when compared to the reserves of strength she has had to draw on over the past few months.

Johnson broke two bones in her back and several in her right leg in a road accident involving 21 women on their way to a hen weekend last April.

Her leg is encased in a metal brace, and between her ankle and knee she has a lump the size of a plum. The swelling marks the spot where she had a recent skin graft.

She has had two operations and is facing a third. Behind me, her father Johnny is fretting as she sidles up to the dartboard. “She’s not supposed to put any weight on that leg,” he says.

Afterwards, when Johnson sees her father’s concerned face, she shrugs her shoulders: “I just wanted to win.”

It was on the morning of Friday, April 26 that Johnson’s life changed for ever. The 25-year-old was setting off with 20 friends from South Elmsall, West Yorkshire, for their friend Stefanie Firth’s hen weekend in Liverpool.

Johnson was to be one of the bridesmaids when Firth, 25, married her long-term boyfriend Gary Leafe the following month. The women, all in matching T-shirts, were laughing and joking when a Farmfoods lorry collided with their minibus, which then flipped over.

The emergency services, including six air ambulances, were called to junction 32 of the M62 where the minibus lay on its side with many of the women trapped inside.

Dr David Macklin, of the Yorkshire Ambulance Service NHS Trust, was one of the first to respond to the emergency call. “It was one of the most horrific [accidents] I’ve witnessed,” he says, “because of the high proportion of serious injuries. People were distressed and in pain and shouting for help. The injuries included head injuries, fractured thigh bones and pelvises, and spinal injuries.

“They all knew each other so those that were conscious were worried about everybody else.”

One of Johnson and Firth’s best friends, 18-year-old student nurse Bethany Jones, died at the scene.

The accident devastated South Elmsall, a small mining village, where almost everyone had a connection to one or more of the women.

Months on, I have been invited to the village by Trevor Jones, a friend of the families. He has organised the darts tournament which is being held in a sports and social club, to raise funds for the women and their families.

Firth, 24, tanned with a ready smile, joins Johnson on stage to throw some darts. She, too, fought for her life, suffering a ruptured spleen and serious spinal injuries. Doctors warned she might never walk again, but she has fought back and is slowly recovering. She no longer needs a neck brace and uses a walking stick to get around.

She tells me that she had played darts only once before, but Johnson, the more outgoing of the pair, cajoled her into taking part in this evening’s competition.

Johnson said: “It’s important for us to be here and to thank the community for all their support.”

In the wake of Jones’s death, her cousin Mark set up a website, Beth’s Angels, aimed at raising funds for the women involved in the accident, including Jones’s sister Amy and her mother Diane, and for the air ambulance crews who helped save the women’s lives that day.

People have been hugely supportive, turning out in droves for events from coffee afternoons and pop concerts to rugby and golf tournaments. So far, more than £30,000 has been raised and the darts event brought in £6,000, the most realised at any event so far.

Johnson is a bubbly, friendly girl, but occasionally her sunny demeanour slips and she appears tired and glum. I ask her what she does to pass the time as she recovers. She cannot read or watch television box sets because the medicine she is taking prevents her from concentrating for long periods.

“I spend a lot of time on eBay,” she says, before giggling at the memory of her mother Michelle’s early attempt at getting to grips with the site. One night her mother, who was also injured in the crash, woke her up in a panic to tell her that instead of bidding £10 on a T-shirt, she had accidentally bid £1,000.

“It was only a few days after the accident,” Johnson says, mock indignantly at the memory of the wake-up call.

Johnson’s older sister, Becky, 27, was due to go on the hen weekend, too, but it clashed with a weekend booked in London. Her boyfriend happened to be travelling in the opposite direction to the minibus and came upon the crash. He telephoned Becky from the scene, telling her he could see her mother but could not spot her sister.

The family was frantic because at the time there were inaccurate reports that three people had died. “I was sure she was dead,” says her father.

Becky Johnson, a hairdresser who moved out of home a year ago, visits her sister every morning for breakfast before she goes to work. She shows me a picture on her iPhone. “This is me, Sarah, Beth and Beth’s sister Amy. I’m so glad I have this photo.”

At Jones’s funeral, which took place in June in St Joseph’s Church in Moorthorpe, six of the women arrived in wheelchairs and many were on crutches.

Johnny Johnson tells me his daughter had started a new accounting job the month before the accident and was enjoying it. She wants to return to work as soon as she can.

Her days at home go slowly and are interspersed with hospital visits. At night she sleeps on a special mattress in the family living room. “She regularly suffers from nightmares,” he says.

He talks briefly about the crash, explaining that his daughter was flung through a window of the minibus. Initially she could not be found, because she had been thrown some distance. He says the impact of the lorry caused their seats to shunt forward. It was this that led to the extensive leg injuries.

The driver of the lorry, Kevin Ollerhead, and the minibus driver, Jimmy Johnson (no relation), were arrested and released on bail. The police investigation continues.

The accident is still taking its toll on many of the women, who find it difficult to sleep and are feeling depressed despite gradual improvement. Earlier this month some of them had a celebratory dinner at their local pub, the Barnsley Oak, to mark the fact that Firth’s cousin, also called Amy, is now able to stand.

Four days later there was another cause for celebration when Ashleigh Warner, 25, who seriously injured her left leg in the accident, walked with no crutches.

The wedding preparations have started again and Firth and Leafe are planning to walk down the aisle in the winter. Johnson will be there in her bridesmaid’s dress, hopefully without crutches.

To donate to the fund, visit bethsangels.co.uk