When you work as a long-distance lorry driver, you see too many accidents. In 32 years, I’ve witnessed everything from prangs to pile-ups. I’ve seen pedestrians hit and HGVs spin out of control. Twice, I’ve had vehicles smash into the back of my truck.
I know how devastating accidents can be. In 1982, I was wiped off a motorcycle and left for dead – fractured skull, broken pelvis, choking on my own blood – until a stranger came to my aid. So, I never thought I would deliberately crash my own lorry. And I certainly didn’t think crashing it would save lives.
It was 20 January and I was driving on the A47 dual carriageway in Norfolk. I work for a farm machinery supplier in Norwich and I was heading back to base. It was 4pm, so the road was pretty busy.
The first inkling that something was wrong came when, about 300 yards in front, a bunch of cars suddenly veered into the left-hand lane. A van had swerved across the carriageway, crashed into the central reservation and was still speeding on, half in the fast lane, half scraping along the barrier.
I’m not sure how I thought I could help, but I accelerated anyway. I drive a 20-tonne truck and I suppose I felt that, if I could get level, I could put myself between the van and other road users.
It became a bit of a race to catch up. Lorries this size don’t accelerate too quickly and the van was doing about 45mph, so it took maybe 10 seconds to get alongside. As I did so, I saw the problem immediately: the driver was unconscious at the wheel. I later learned he had had a brain haemorrhage.
I know the A47 well and I was aware we were approaching a place where the central barrier ends. If the van was still bouncing along the reservation at that point, it would swing into oncoming traffic. I realised I had to do something.
Instinct took over. I decided to crash into him. I nosed the lorry ahead, then steered slightly across the van’s path so that, as we travelled along, it became trapped between my tail and the barrier.
There was a screech of metal on metal as the vehicles collided. I remember thinking: that won’t do the paint job any good. But I was mainly concentrating on gripping the wheel, making sure I didn’t lose control. I felt a bit like a stunt driver, although stunt drivers probably aren’t as nervous as I was.
As we continued, I pressed the brake. I knew that, if I stopped too quickly, the van would crumple against the tail, so I was as gentle as I dared be – 40mph, 30, 20, bringing us slowly to a stop. It went like a dream. The lorry was a perfect tool for pulling off that manoeuvre.
At that point, other motorists pulled up to help. One was an off-duty firefighter and another a paramedic. They were exactly the people you would want in that situation. The van driver was still unconscious when the ambulance arrived, but because he was taken to hospital so quickly the haemorrhage was treatable. It’s ironic: if he had collapsed somewhere safer but on his own, he wouldn’t be with us today, but because it happened on a busy road, he survived.
The police told me I had saved his life, and others, by preventing a pile-up. Then they said they would have to open a file because I had deliberately crashed a vehicle. I received a letter a couple of weeks later saying I wouldn’t be charged. Which was nice.
At work the next day, they gave me a standing ovation. The Royal Humane Society got in touch, too. I’m not sure how it heard about it, because it wasn’t in the press, but it gave me a bravery award. That was lovely, but I just did what anyone would have done.
The biggest thing for me was being able to help someone. The stranger who saved my life after my motorbike accident couldn’t wait for the police, because he was driving without insurance. I don’t know who he was, but it has always weighed heavily on me that I have never been able to thank him. In a way, it feels as if I have paid that debt forward.
•As told to Colin Drury
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