A car can be travelling only a little too fast ... but Kate Johns knows from her own experience what the result can be

She was just 17. School had just finished. Summer seemed to stretch on forever.

She was crossing the road from the Manukau shopping centre to Rainbow's End when the car hit her. Rolling across the bonnet, she shattered its windscreen with her face. As the still-moving car passed under her, she cartwheeled upwards. By the time she landed head-first on the road, she was moving in the same direction as the car " sliding across tarmac which grated away the top knuckle on her fist.

Her visible injuries, mostly facial, have long healed, as they should have; she's 35 now. But the invisible damage Kate Johns lives with every minute of every day has marred her life in ways few of us could hope to understand. That's what traumatic brain injury does to you.

She tires easily, so a trip to Hamilton "will wipe me out for two or three days". Hypersensitive to light, she wears sunglasses even in winter. She can't filter out noise, so the world feels like an aural bombardment. She finds it hard to engage in the most fundamental multitasking.


As I sat in the shade on the deck of Kate's Glendowie home last week and listened to this catalogue of damage, I flinched.

But the bit that hit hardest was when she told me that she can't remember the early childhood of her 13-year-old daughter Tayla " who was born more than five years after she was hit. She can't remember her father, who died in 2002.

"I'm considered a very mild case," says Kate, whose vivacious energy is striking. "I'm lucky, really."

Lucky or not, she might be forgiven for taking a personal interest in the question of road speeds, which burned hot in the pages of the Herald over the summer break. For her, it's a personal matter.

The nitpicker might find holes in Kate's story of the day that changed her life. She stepped on to a crossing while a traffic light was orange and the car that hit her, though accelerating to beat the lights, was probably (the investigation was unclear) travelling below the speed limit.

But such objections rather spectacularly miss the point that she makes with some exasperation: the faster you drive, the more likely it is that bad stuff will happen.

I looked Kate up because she had written to the Herald to castigate the AA's Mike Noon for urging the police to ease up on low-level speedsters on Auckland motorways. Last week, Police Commissioner Mike Bush apologised for "our messaging [not being] clear enough around what speed levels would be enforced".

Both pronouncements induced in Kate a mixture of rage and despair.


"All this noise is so irrelevant," she says. "People say they are confused and don't know what they can get away with. Well, they do: it's 50 or 100 or whatever the speed limit is.

"The police shouldn't have to apologise and explain whether you can do 54 on this weekend and 57 if it's not a public holiday. The fact that they are apologising is ridiculous to me."

Two years ago, Kate established an organisation called Hopeworks to lobby for people living with traumatic brain injury and neurological disorders. The impetus was not her own condition, but that of her father, who had motor neurone disease and her mother, who had both Parkinson's and dementia. Her interest is as much in families of those with brain injury and disease as the victims themselves.

Needless to say, it has made her keenly aware of the potential for head injury in even minor incidents involving hard vehicles and soft humans. She reminds me that by the time a car travelling at 50km/h comes to a stop, a car travelling at 60km/h will be doing 44km/h. Anyone that faster car hits at that speed has a less-than-even chance of escaping death or serious injury.

Your options get smaller the faster you go, says Kate, but too many of us see speeding as a game of what we can get away with.

"People have this obsession that it is a god-given right to drive as they wish," she says. "The police are doing what the Government " and the public " have asked them to do.


"But as soon as someone gets a $50 ticket it becomes a media storm and the police are apologising because they have put someone out who is doing something they shouldn't have been doing in the first place."