Carmen Fell Asleep At The Wheel. Her Father Has A Christmas Message For Us All.
A few weeks ago, I saw John Maher’s Carmen Road Safety presentation at the school where I work.
I stood at the back of the auditorium and watched as the crowd of over 100 Year 11 students were brought to tears by his devastating story -- the tragic loss of his youngest daughter, Carmen, to a road accident 24 years ago, and the horrific pain it inflicted upon her family left behind.
These young students, many of whom are currently learner divers themselves, did not know John personally. But after hearing him speak they could relate so deeply to his very human story; his 'family story', as he describes it.
They didn’t just relate to the pain of his devastating loss. They were also able to put themselves in his position as well -- what it would feel like to lose someone you loved in a situation which was ultimately avoidable.
With that powerful understanding, nearly every single one of these teens began to cry and at the end they formed a line to give John a hug, the very act he said he misses the most about his own daughter.
“You can’t give someone a cuddle if they’re not there,” John said.
He also said he missed “how unbelievable our four girls were together.” Carmen was the youngest of four, who John said “did everything together and were all very close.”
“Carmen nearly all the time was the life of any event. She was a bit mischievous liked to have a joke and kept everybody happy. That is why it hurt so much when we lost Carmen,” John said.
The human insights like this are what allows John to reach the teens who often make up the audience of his Carmen Road Safety presentations. And they are who he wants his message to reach the most because year after year, too many of them are still losing their life on our roads.
John travels nationwide to tell his story. With it, he cuts through the bravado often present in teenagers and younger drivers, hoping to prevent as many lives as possible from being lost.
Although John’s presentation is based around the loss of Carmen, his story doesn’t start there. It begins with his own near-death experience just two years prior to Carmen’s death.
In 1992, John himself was involved in a fatal accident which involved another young driver who crashed into John’s vehicle. John was left with serious back and head injuries, some which doctors said he would never recover from.
The other driver was killed.
Then on November 18, 1995, Carmen fell asleep at the wheel after taking a friend to work one morning. It was a micro sleep of a tired teen. At the age of 18, she lost her life and all of the opportunity that came with it.
The impact of this loss absolutely shattered the very tight-knit Maher family.
“It is really hard to describe because it is the most confronting situation to face. It is something that you find really hard to believe," John said.
"It is the most traumatic thing a family can face. It destroys your family. Families break up over these things and I know why."
Then only two years later, yet another road accident devastated the Victorian city of Bendigo, where the Maher family lived and where Carmen had also lost her life.
“Four boys were all killed in a car accident. They were mucking around in the car and then they crashed," John said.
"They were trapped inside the car as it caught on fire and they were all killed. I decided then that someone had to do something, this had to stop."
John set up the Carmen Road Safety Presentations, aiming to help prevent as many road deaths as possible.
His hope is to make the teenagers understand that their parents and families simply can't lose them.
"I try to make them understand that we need you in our lives. You can’t leave our lives because it belongs to the people who love you," he said.
"You must stay alive because when you leave it destroys our lives. We can’t function if there is a hole in our life.”
With summer holidays here, this message is a timely one -- the period John identified as the worst for these tragedies to occur.
“On school holidays kids, get bored and they look for things to do,” he said.
With this in mind, he urges parents to remind their teens to think before they get into the car with another driver.
“Encourage your children to make great choices when you get into a car. As a passenger, you gift your one and only life to the driver, to someone else," John said.
"You no longer own your life. That person owns your life 100 per cent, and you will live or die depending on what they do.”
John said his work sharing the safety messages was a gift from Carmen, not just to help others but also as a way for Carmen to actively live on in his life.
“Carmen is with me all the time, she is still in our lives. She gave me my life back, because I was never going to work again, but I did thanks to her," John said.
"She was never going to just die and just be gone. That was never going to happen to Carmen.”
Featured image: Supplied