Nfld. & Labrador·Video

Driven: Crash survivors open up about life-changing injuries

Car crash survivors say the phrase "non-life-threatening injuries" obscures the social harm caused by seemingly minor accidents.

Crash survivors say the phrase 'non-life-threatening injuries' doesn't do their stories justice

Debbie Templeman lost the use of her legs in a car crash when she was 21 years old. (Mark Cumby/CBC)

Debbie Templeman lost the use of her legs in a car accident when she was 20 years old.

She had just graduated from nursing school, with her whole life ahead of her.

She says all of that vanished in an instant.

"My future, I knew, was going to be totally changed because I was now paralyzed, in a wheelchair for life."

If you were paying attention to the news on the day of Templeman's accident, you would not have known that something so serious happened because of a car accident.

Instead, Templeman says the news report about her accident painted a very different picture.

"I believe it was a 'motor-vehicle accident on the Salmonier Line, with a non-life-threatening injury.' That's how they described it and they kind of moved on in the news. That was it." she said.

"I wish my life kind of just moved on as quickly as they said, [that] it was as easy as that — but it's not."

Non-life-threatening injuries

When a person is hurt in a car accident, but expected to survive, they are usually described by police as having sustained "non-life-threatening injuries."

That language covers everything from a bump on the head to a shattered spine. It is intentionally vague, both to protect the victim's privacy, and because the extent of a person's injuries is not always clear at the time of an accident.

Because the media relies on police for the vast majority of information on car accidents, the phrase "non-life-threatening injuries" is ubiquitous in news reporting.

But even though there are reasons for using this language, it has the effect of keeping the public from getting the full story.

It prevents us from understanding the social harm that results from seemingly minor car accidents.

And it obscures the shocking frequency with which lives are destroyed in entirely preventable ways.

How frequent are these types of accidents?

To date in 2016, there have been two fatal collisions in metro St. John's.

In that same time, there have been 861 collisions that resulted in "non-life-threatening injuries."

Marina and Randy White have learned to live with Randy's brain injury following a car crash in Mount Pearl. (Gary Quigley/CBC)

A story for every accident

Randy White was around the same age as Debbie Templeman when he was also in a car accident.

Like Templeman, he was a young person with plans and dreams for the future.

And like Templeman, his injuries were described in the media as a "non-life-threatening."

But where Templeman sustained a bodily injury, White was left with a brain injury.

Randy White worked hard to regain his motor functions following a car accident. (Mark Cumby/CBC)

I asked White what changed because of his accident.

"Walk, talk, speech, everything," he says.

Making that short statement has taken a Herculean effort for White.

His brain injury was so severe that his mother Marina White was told to expect the worst.

"The doctors told us he'd never walk or talk, and he'd never know us," she says.

After years of therapy, White has left those dour predictions in the dust. But a huge part of his life was lost in an accident that was not his fault.

"It's changed all our lives," Marina White says. "Randy was hoping for a career in the military, his RNC hopes … that was all dashed."

Words matter

Templeman and Randy and Marina White all agree that their stories were not represented by the news reports that followed their car accidents.

They understand that the phrase "non-life-threatening injuries" helps to protect the privacy of accident victims. But they are frustrated at how that language may actually impede an understanding of the consequences of car accidents.

"You know, you perceive that this person got up and walked away and life never changed," says Marina White. "It would be nice if it could be portrayed a little differently."

Randy White interjects, "Speak up, news!"

Debbie Templeman had to learn to navigate the world in a wheelchair after a car accident in 1992. (Mark Cumby/CBC)

Debbie Templeman says she has built a happy life since her accident, and doesn't focus on what she lost.

But she says that injuries like hers and Randy White's ought to be described as being  "life-changing," so that people fully understand what's at stake when they get behind the wheel.

"These accidents, they happen to so many people," she says. "I would want someone to know that my life just wasn't a quick accident that was over with. It was the rest of my life that got changed."

CBC Newfoundland and Labrador is hosting a special 90-minute public forum on dangerous driving. Be sure to watch Here & Now from 6 until 7 p.m. NT on Nov. 24, and check back to our websiteFacebook page and YouTube channel from 6 to 7:30 p.m. NT.


Zach Goudie is a journalist and video producer with CBC in St. John's.