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My car accident left me terrified of driving - so I asked racing legend Greg Murphy for help

By Rebekah Holt

Nine years ago, Rebekah Holt had a serious car crash that left her with serious injuries, including a mild brain injury. She was also left with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that kicked in whenever she was in a car. This week she decided to confront her fears – via a high-speed training session with Kiwi racing legend Greg Murphy. This is her story.

How did I find myself telling driving legend Greg Murphy I would try not to puke in his nice car if he could teach me how to brake properly?

Let me explain. On a rainy Auckland morning in 2008, I had a head-on car accident.

Just after 9am I turned right at a T-junction onto Candia Rd, which runs through the Henderson Valley foothills.

I was driving a 2005 Toyota hatchback with decent tyres and airbags.

The rain became heavy as I turned.

I was going about 25km/h as I started down the hill. Even though it was an 80km/h zone I touched the brakes instinctively because the rain had gone quickly from heavy to torrential.

When I tapped the brakes there was no response.

The way the hill and the road sloped downward meant I was gaining speed rapidly and sliding into oncoming traffic in the opposite lane.

Rebekah Holt. Photo / Supplied
Rebekah Holt. Photo / Supplied

I gave up pumping and started standing on the brake. I don't remember if I tried the handbrake.

I drove head-on into a big four-wheel drive with bull bars and a winch on the front.

I must have blacked out for a few moments post-impact but remember coming to and seeing smoke coming from the engine, the shattered windscreen and the airbag.

Shortly after a tow-truck driver and a local man came to my side of the car and got the door partially open.

The tow-truck driver said to me, "The road has been covered in gas love, you didn't stand a chance, I can barely stand up", and I wondered how that could happen.

Later a policeman would tell me that people put diesel on roads to increase the smoke when they do burnouts.

I was told an ambulance was on the way but I was really worried the smoke from the engine was a prelude to a fire. I said I was going to try to get out.

I took my seatbelt off but I couldn't move my right leg. So I grabbed the fabric of my jeans and lifted the leg and got it halfway out the door.

As my weight shifted I realised I couldn't stand on that leg and was struggling to move any further.

That's when it occurred to me that I could have a spinal injury and should stay still. But I asked the two men to drag me out if a fire started.

When the ambulance arrived the medics got the Fire Service to cut off the driver's door so they could brace me up safely to take me to hospital.

On the way to hospital I started getting pain from the internal injuries and was given my first dose of relief meds.

The driver of the other vehicle was in the same ambulance. As they wheeled us into Auckland Hospital, I said, "I hope you are okay". Police told me later she had some whiplash but was otherwise okay.

I wasn't. That afternoon I spent about seven hours in surgery.

I had a fractured vertebrae, which required three months in a halo frame, multiple broken ribs and a broken collarbone. Three fractures just above the right knee required screws and a couple of permanent plates.

My internal injuries were complex and meant I had three operations eventually, two of them emergency surgeries. I was in hospital for about two months and spent countless hours in physical rehabilitation and treatment

There was also a mild brain injury which made my spelling rather unpredictable.

Nine years on I am used to the physical changes and the therapy I need to do to manage pain.

I have a huge sense of gratitude that I can walk and talk because I spent enough time in hospital beside people who were paraplegic or seriously brain-injured after car crashes.

I am still affected by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) whenever I am in a car - as a driver or passenger.

When I started driving about five months after the accident it was hard to manage if it was raining.

If I felt like the car was sliding. I felt like I wanted to vomit and was instantly sweaty and clammy. This happened a lot when I was living in Melbourne as the car slid slightly on tram tracks.

When vehicles passed me closely and at speed on my right side, I had the sensation of wanting to close my eyes or flinch, although logic stopped me.

I tried psychotherapy after the accident. It works well for a lot of people but didn't lessen my symptoms.

Last year I began to wonder whether expert training on how to brake properly might make me feel better and more confident in my ability. Being cautious while driving is healthy but feeling like you want to spew gets exhausting.

So I called Stu Kearns, who used to run the Waitemata Police Serious Crash Unit. I asked if he thought that kind of training was worth a shot and he made a surprising suggestion.

"Do it and ask Greg Murphy to do the training with you at Hampton Downs, he will be right into it."

"Really Stu? Racing car Greg Murphy? Racing track Hampton Downs? Seriously?"

Rebekah Holt attempts to cure her PTSD she got after a bad head-on car crash by having high-speed driver training with Greg Murphy. Photo / NZME
Rebekah Holt attempts to cure her PTSD she got after a bad head-on car crash by having high-speed driver training with Greg Murphy. Photo / NZME

I called Greg to explain my idea, feeling like a bit of an idiot, but Stu was correct. He was right into it. After describing my accident to him he sent me an email saying: "I guarantee that you will leave on Monday with a completely new outlook on your driving."

While Greg and Stu convinced me to treat myself like a human guinea pig, I thought I should talk to an expert in the area to see if that made any sense clinically.

Dr Eva Alisic is senior research fellow of the Trauma Recovery Lab at Monash University Accident Research Centre on the outskirts of Melbourne.

She explained to me that after a shocking event such as a serious car crash, many people are distressed. For example, they can have flashbacks, experience sleeping problems, avoid places related to what happened, have very negative thoughts and feel they are on high alert all the time.

"These are natural reactions to something frightening, and the reactions that you describe are common among people who have survived a car crash. Usually, these acute stress symptoms fade away after a few weeks or months. However, sometimes they persist and become chronic."

I asked Eva if minimising the triggers using training was a realistic goal.

"When someone has developed PTSD, it generally needs intervention in order to subside. There are a couple of treatments that have proven effective. Usually, these require an element of talking about the trauma and/or exposure to reminders of the trauma. Your experiment is a safe way to confront your fears. It would fit well within a trauma-focused psychological treatment. What is hard to tell, is whether it will be enough."

In the driver's seat with Greg beside me I notice I am nervous. But it's not as bad as I had anticipated. Photo / NZME
In the driver's seat with Greg beside me I notice I am nervous. But it's not as bad as I had anticipated. Photo / NZME

So here I am. Standing on a race track beside Greg Murphy on Monday morning. After the heaviest rainfall on record in Auckland. Questioning my own sanity.

Before I even get to Hampton Downs I have messages from friends expressing concern about what I am doing.

One person, an ex-stuntwoman, asks, "Why can't you just do therapy like the rest of us?"
I assure her I tried it but came away thinking I needed practical experience, not theoretical talk about feelings.

I want to learn something useful but am also very aware I am being filmed as part of this story. I wonder if that will affect my ability to concentrate but forget about the cameras almost immediately.

Greg's selected a Holden Commodore SV6 for the day.

In the driver's seat with Greg beside me I notice I am nervous. But it's not as bad as I had anticipated because he has made it clear he won't push me further than where I am comfortable.

While I don't appear extremely nervous in the footage, the film crew notice I start sweating as soon as I get to the track. No amount of face powder seems to help!

Greg explains what we will do. Some basic braking drills so I know how ABS brakes work and what they feel like when you truly slam them on. Then he will show me how to brake and turn the car at the same time.

Unexpectedly, I begin to enjoy the drills and the new feelings of confidence in the reliability of the braking system.

Because my accident involved a combination of unusual elements - heavy rain, a sloping road and a gas spill - I believe that at some level, in the nine years since the accident I have expected the same thing to happen all over again.

Unexpectedly, I begin to enjoy the drills and the new feelings of confidence in the reliability of the braking system. Photo / NZME
Unexpectedly, I begin to enjoy the drills and the new feelings of confidence in the reliability of the braking system. Photo / NZME

I know that's highly unlikely, but somehow the sensation of having no ability to stop the car is what lodged in my mind and it overrides logic.

When Greg gets me to drive at speed - about 75km/h - and then slam on the brakes when he tells me, it truly does change something in my brain. I begin to believe the car will stay on the road because it actually is. This is the first time I have felt that since 2008.

But there is a moment when I reach a threshold. When the cameraman moves closer to get a shot of me driving, I see him in front of the car. He isn't dangerously close at all but I am instantly and illogically terrified of running into him.

Greg reassures me that I won't get near him but it totally throws my concentration and confidence.

After that I am really reluctant to accelerate to the speed Greg suggests and I fail to follow his instructions on turning the car left or right as I brake. So I go from enjoying the process to just wanting to stop.

Photo / NZME
Photo / NZME

Psychologically and emotionally this is interesting. I wonder if the PTSD means I can only cope with a certain amount of new information at one time?

We stop filming because we have enough footage and Greg can tell that I have probably done what I can manage for the day.

He then hops into the driver's seat and asks if I am comfortable with him driving me around the track so he can show me what the car is really capable of.

We don't film this because, as Greg points out, this is not a story about going fast and that isn't what we want to portray. He just thinks it would be useful for me to understand more about how a car can feel on the road.

Greg asks if I am okay and when I say yes he speeds up. He explains what is happening with the tyres and the engine and the brakes as we go around the track.

We get to about 130km/h. I haven't been that fast in a car ever and there are moments in that 10 minutes that I am uncomfortable and astonished. But I don't feel unsafe.

When we stop to talk about it, I tell Greg how heavy the car felt. Feeling the weight of it, even at that speed, was tremendously reassuring.

Photo / NZME
Photo / NZME

I feel like, because he's a racing driver, he knows intuitively what my PTSD is like and how he will approach it.

It might be because he has had some very high-speed accidents. It's definitely because he is an expert driver. But I feel like Greg knows more about what my brain needs than some of the therapists I have encountered.

At the end of our session and in the days following, I definitely feel more comfortable with how to use the brakes. I am feeling less agitated when driving and want to do more driver training.

I think this will be a gradual process. Perhaps because of the PTSD I might not be able to jam a lot of new skills in at once but approach them in a small manageable sessions.

But I do want to be able to drive in a way that doesn't make me a risk to others, or in a constantly fearful state.

Greg was right. I have a new outlook on my ability to drive and, most tangibly, how I feel about driving a car.

- NZ Herald

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