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Reducing our speed to minimise impacts of TBI

27 January 2022 by Katie Hodge

Reducing our speed to minimise impacts of TBI


Ask most people what words they hear and focus on when they read about a serious crash on our roads and they will say ‘died’ or ‘seriously injured’. Death is easy to understand, but what is considered a serious injury? A spinal injury, losing a leg or an arm, rupturing your spleen, having broken bones?

Rarely do you hear what happens following the reported crash. People probably assume victims are recovering in hospital, and think, “How lucky that they have survived” and that everything will be back to normal soon.

What is rarely understood is that these crashes all too often result in brain injuries that never fully recover.

Motor Vehicle Accidents (MVA) are still the leading cause of brain injuries in New Zealand.

Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) caused by the head making contact with something – a dashboard, window or road – or by simply being shaken around, results in long term permanent issues.

It comes down to basic physics – the greater your speed, the more severe the impact at the point of collision, and the greater the chance of injury to the human body and our most vital organ - the brain.

Up to 36,000 people suffer a Traumatic Brain injury each year. Approximately 1,750 of these are considered moderate to severe, and 500 people will go on to receive specialised residential rehabilitation.

The cost of TBI-related claims to ACC was $83.5 million in the 2015 financial year*, second only to stroke for the impact it has on employment and income.

Hearing that a crash victim has come out of a coma is always celebrated (as it should be). But as much as Hollywood would like you to think, you rarely remember everything that happened and certainly have confusion and difficulty making new memories in the days and weeks following.

Physical injuries may recovery quickly, but it is the ‘cognitive’, thinking problems that last and cause significant disruption to relationships, home, work, study and social life.

The problems are invisible to the naked eye. Often it is the family and close friends that really know, and pressure comes on from others who see the person as ‘back to normal’. They wonder, “Why haven’t they returned to work/school/university/sport yet?”

Keeping up with conversations, remembering what is being said, responding appropriately to the situation is hard.

Planning, thinking through a problem and making decisions is hard.

Coping with noise, visual stimulation, bright lights, sleeping is hard.

Keeping mentally well, cheerful and not becoming frustrated or angry is hard.

Thinking about others and seeing other people’s point of view is hard.

Multitasking is usually impossible and learning new things is slower.

Most of all, the brain gets so tired with all activities of daily life. Regular rests and top ups are required often during the day for the person to be able to function successfully for the whole day.

Return to usual activities can take months or years and may never be possible.

Work may need to be part time or a different role. Social situations need to be tailored for the person to cope i.e. a quiet location, not too many people, not too much chatter.

Next time you are in your car, going at speed, just remember - if you stop suddenly and hit something, or someone, then your brain will get so jiggled around that all the pathways and networks will stretch and sometimes break.

Some parts will mend or reroute with time and rehabilitation, but it is highly likely that the brain will ever function in exactly the way it did before.

Think about how much you have to lose. Many injuries can’t be avoided, but a brain injury due to driving too fast and crashing can be.

*Source: ACC Traumatic Brain Injury Strategy and Action Plan (2017 – 2021)

Katie Hodge is the General Manager Rehabilitation at the Laura Fergusson Brain Injury Trust, Christchurch, and writes in support of safer speeds on New Zealand’s roads.