Carole Whittingham, pictured above, can still vividly remember the knock at the door that changed her life forever. It was 9.45pm on a cold January night in 1992. She’d just gone to bed but two minutes later her husband, Frank – who had been watching television downstairs – screamed out her name. He’d just been told their 27-year-old son Steven had died.
“It was my daughter’s partner Nigel who broke the news to us,” recalls Carole (71). “He worked with Steven. However, he didn’t have any details, just that Steven had been in his car earlier that evening and had died. I remember saying, ‘What do you mean he’s died?’ I’d seen Steven the previous day and he was fine. How could he be dead?
“I started to shake uncontrollably, but I refused to believe that my son had died. As we made our way to the hospital I was convinced there had been a mix up. Even later when we were shown his wallet I thought that Steven had lost it, and it had been found by the young man who had died. But then we were taken into a room for the identification process. It was my son, and I knew in that instant that my life would never be the same.”
On that evening Steven, a popular, easy going young man, who worked as a chef, had gone out to fill his car with petrol. Less than 200 yards from his home, he was hit by a stolen car travelling in excess of 80mph in a 30mph zone on the wrong side of the road. The driver of the car was 18, his passenger just 13. Both were well-known local car thieves, who had been drinking and taking drugs. When the driver lost control of the vehicle, it narrowly missed two pedestrians, but hit Steven’s car head on. The stolen car caught fire, and the thieves were helped to safety. However, they ran away leaving Steven trapped and dying in his mangled car.
Carole, from Rastrick, in West Yorkshire, says: “Once I knew the facts I pieced a film together of that evening which to this day plays over and over in my mind. As a mother you don’t expect your children to die before you. I will never get over losing Steven, and I don’t want to. I feel that would be a betrayal. After his funeral I didn’t leave the house for weeks. I couldn’t because I had an overwhelming desire to scream at everyone, ‘how can you get on with your lives, when I’m dealing with something so unthinkable!’ I was consumed with grief.”
The driver of the stolen car pleaded guilty to death by reckless driving, and was given three years youth custody. However, he only served 13 months, which further added to Carole’s pain. She tried to find a support group – where she could talk to others in a similar position – but nothing was available. Then the Yorkshire Post newspaper ran a story on Carole, and another woman who had lost her husband in similar circumstances. The two women made contact and met up, along with a few others they had got to know, who were also looking for support.
"We got talking, and realised there was a need for an organisation to help people like ourselves,” says Carole. “There were seven of us, and we all put £1 on the table, declaring it to be the initial funds to set up a helpline.”
In 1993 Carole set up the SCARD (Support and Care After Road Death and Injury), helpline from her home, and was immediately deluged with calls. Since then, the self-funded organisation has gone from strength to strength, offering support to thousands of people who have lost a loved one, or been injured or affected by drunk or reckless driving. In addition to the helpline, SCARD also runs support groups, holds meetings, and has personal support systems in place. Other services include assisting with court proceedings, providing access to free initial legal advice, and helping people to access counselling.
An important part of SCARD’s work is educating youngsters about the impact of reckless driving, and Carole often speaks at workshops in schools where she tells Steven’s story. She is also campaigning for tougher punishments for drivers caught speeding, or those under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
In 2011 she was awarded an MBE, and hopes that SCARD’s work will result in less deaths on the roads. “Steven would have been 50 this year,” she says. “I think about what he would have been doing now, but everything was snatched away on the night he died. He got a life sentence and so did I.
“SCARD is a way of keeping Steven’s memory alive while supporting others. I don’t consider myself brave or inspirational, I’m just trying to prevent deaths on the roads which will save other families from going through the pain I’ve suffered. It’s too late for me, but hopefully our work is making a difference. And that above all is my motivation to carry on.”
To find out more about SCARD, or if you’d like to make a donation, call 01484 400 092 (helpline, available 365 days a year), or 01484 723 649 (office) or visit www.scard.org.uk
Time for change
Figures in a survey by campaigners recently showed that in 2011, 153 of the 408 people convicted of causing death or bodily harm while driving dangerously, or under the influence of drink or drugs, avoided jail altogether. Five were given fines, and 63 were given suspended prison sentences.
The government announced recently that drivers who cause death or serious injuries on the roads while banned from driving will face up to 10 years in jail – the current maximum sentence for that offence is two years’ imprisonment.
Depending on circumstances, sentences for a person convicted of causing death by dangerous driving currently range from 12 months to 14 years.