“I want them to see how it’s been this many years since my car crash and I still cry like it happened yesterday.”
Phillip Michael Wright explained the painful cause which led him to speak in front of thousands of school students every year about road safety.
The now 28-year-old was behind the wheel of a horrific crash that killed his friend 18-year-old Nicholas Michael Holbrook in June 2009.
Ten years on, Wright, who was convicted over Nick’s death, bears the burden of that night that ended in a mangled mess of twisted metal.
Police are releasing their first podcast telling the story of Nick’s life and the lasting effects the fatal crash had on his loving family and the offending driver.
Nick’s parents Glynis and Michael Holbrook, alongside Wright, opened up to Sunday Mail as part of the Enough is Enough road safety campaign in partnership with SA Police to reduce deaths and serious injuries on SA roads.
The campaign highlights the human cost of serious road crashes — from the victim’s family and friends to emergency workers and medical personnel who spend years rehabilitate the seriously injured.
CLICK TO HEAR A SAMPLE OF THE PODCAST BELOW
Podcast – Nick Holbrook’s story6:04
Fatal crash victim Nick Holbrook’s parents Glynis and Michael alongside offending driver Phillip Wright opens up in SA Police podcast.
The dreaded phone call
Mr Holbrook, 62, recalled seeing the “genuine remorse” on 18-year-old Wright’s face in Royal Adelaide Hospital as he told the young driver that his son Nick had died.
“I had some anger then … towards Phillip at that time,” Mr Holbrook said. “It wasn’t an overwhelming sense of hatred or anything it was just ‘why did you have to kill my kid?’, ‘why didn’t you kill yourself?’.
“The real anger came later, with a combination of frustration.
“Nick was at the wrong place at the wrong time. Just the complete randomness of it just gets to you, that it was completely unnecessary.”
On the night on June 11, 2009, Nick sat in the front passenger seat of Wright’s car while their friend Jeffrey Smith was in another car when the boys headed to Subway on West Lakes Boulevard, West Lakes.
Both cars stopped at the red traffic lights outside Hungry Jack’s and Wright looked down to select a song from the CD he was playing.
When he looked up, Mr Smith had sped off so Wright accelerated to catch up, reaching 100km/h in a 60km/h zone before coming to a bend. Wright, who was a P-plater, overcorrected and lost control on the wet road.
His car slammed into a tree on the centre median strip and the impact was so strong Nick’s front passenger seat was forced into the back seat.
Firefighters took 27 minutes to remove Nick from the wrecked car before the young man was rushed to Royal Adelaide Hospital where he died at 1.19am on June 12, 2009.
At their Woodville South home, Mr Holbrook picked up the phone to a call no parent ever wants to receive.
“We were totally dumbstruck … it just hits you like nothing has ever hit us before,” Nick’s father Michael said.
“We didn’t collapse into uncontrollable grief, we were just completely and utterly shocked.”
The Holbrooks decided almost immediately to see Wright, who was being treated for minor injuries in another department in the hospital.
“I look back to when I saw Phillip in the hospital on that very first night and I saw the genuine remorse in his face, I saw his begging of forgiveness,” the father said.
“One of the biggest things was at least he had the guts to stand up in the court of law, plead guilty and accept responsibility for what he had done.
“For us that was very important because there are so many people in the same situation who would hide behind a lawyer, take no responsibility.”
Three years after the crash, the Holbrooks stood up in court and asked the judge to spare Wright a jail term.
Mrs Holbrook, 58, told the court at the time that Wright, who was charged with death by dangerous driving, had let his best friend down the night of the fatal crash.
“Your senseless selfish actions cost him his life and that is something you will have to live with for the rest of your life,” she said to a crying Wright in the dock.
Outside court, Wright was in regular contact with the Holbrooks, meeting up for birthdays and anniversaries when they would have a pizza and beer — Nick’s favourite.
They reminisced about the “compassionate” brother, who had a flair for creative writing, was “the leader in anything musical”, and a fan of rock musician Dave Grohl.
Wright and Mr Smith, who was also charged over the crash but later acquitted, went to a private viewing of Nick’s body along with the family the day before the funeral.
“Phillip was at our house two days after (the crash) and ate with us. That must have taken a lot of courage for him to do that,” Mrs Holbrook said.
“If it had been Nick who caused an accident and killed somebody, how would I want him treated? I thought I won’t want him treated badly.”
“Sometimes I think Phillip’s journey is harder than ours. You do it tough and you do it tough for a long time.”
Wright said there was never any choice but to own up to his mistake.
“There is no one way to cut up who’s got the worse side of it because there isn’t,” he said.
“Being able to see one’s pain on their face is one thing but to actually hear the hurt and damage you’ve done … it just cuts a new level of deep.
“Don’t get me wrong, they (the Holbrooks) needed to say it (in court), I needed to hear it.
“It still didn’t take away any less painful than what it was going to be (sic).”
Wright is reminded permanently of the tragedy with a tattoo on his chest with Nick’s name, dates of birth and death, and a quote — “Nick, you taught me what friendship is”.
Wright received a suspended 2.5-year sentence and lost his driver’s licence for 10 years.
His criminal record did not allow him to travel to many countries and he has been rejected from several job opportunities. He was unsure if he would ever drive again.
“Do I want to try and face my fear and get behind the wheel so it doesn’t own me for the rest of my life? Yes I want to overcome that,” he said.
“Would I drive like any normal person would? Probably not.”
Five years ago, Wright began joining Mr Holbrook at school talks as part of RAA’s Street Smart program but admitted telling Nick’s story each time reopened wounds.
“Do I owe something? Yes I do. Had I repaid it? I had no idea,” he said.
“This (speaking to students) was one of the ways to help.
“Not only to feel like I’m contributing back and moving forward but also not go crazy in the same cycle of hatred and sadness that I ended up sometimes.”
He said retelling the night of the crash put him “in a dark place” in the last two years but he wanted to show young people “how much damage” the crash still does to him in the last decade.
Mr Holbrook echoed the emotional toll after participating in road safety education programs in the last eight years while grieving the loss of his eldest son.
The father said he suffered from anxiety and admitted to directing his anger at his wife, which he regretted.
“When I first started doing it was emotionally very taxing,” he said.
“The longer I went along, the more feedback, the more times a kid comes up and look you in the eye and shake your hand, saying ‘thank you so much’, the more you realise you’re making a difference.
“As the number of years went by you saw the number of young road deaths reduce quite dramatically — don’t think I’m taking responsibility for it — it makes a difference thinking that something is being done right and I’m making a contribution to that.”
Fatalities of drivers aged 16 to 24 are fewer over the last 10 years with 17 deaths in 2018, down from 42 in 2009. So far this year nine young drivers have lost their lives on SA roads.
To every motorist, Mr Holbrook has this stern message: “What’s the point of setting up a roadside memorial? Saying something after the event is too late.”
“If you think someone is driving dangerously, you have to tell them right then and there.
“You have to take action prior to the event. “
SA Police Traffic Support Branch officer-in-charge Superintendent Bob Gray said the podcast was another avenue being used by police in a bid to highlight the terrible trauma caused by road crashes.
“I urge all South Australians to download this and to consider their own driving behaviour in the light of the lasting impact of road crashes,” he said.
“Every choice has a consequence, with those consequences continuing to echo across the decade since Nick died.”
The podcast can be downloaded from Soundcloud from 10am on Sunday or visit the SA Police website
The podcast may be distressing or upsetting and not suitable for all listeners. Listener discretion is advised.
Road Trauma Support Team of South Australia: phone 1800 069528 or www.roadtraumasupportsa.com.au
Road safety June long weekend0:42
While the wider community takes a break this long weekend, South Australia Police will be hard at work with an important focus on stopping the state’s growing road toll.