Sergio Hijano. s.f. / CAMPAIGN.

When you think you're in control behind the steering wheel

The Association for the Prevention of Traffic Accidents and the CIFAL centre are participating in a campaign to highlight the dangers of drink-driving

SOFÍA FERNÁNDEZ

"Hey honey, shall I come to pick you up?" His wife asked him on the phone at half past ten at night. Sergio answered confidently. "No, no. I'm fine. Don't worry. I'll see you in a bit," he replied.

He had made that journey a thousand times. He only had to drive six kilometres from the bar - where he had just had a few drinks with some friends - to his house. It was an afternoon like any other, on a normal Friday, 18 December 2009.

Five minutes after that call, Sergio - who was 32 years old at the time - lost control of his Suzuki GSR600, came off the road and crashed into the 91st streetlight on Avenida Juan Carlos I in Vélez-Málaga.

He does not remember what happened next, or why he lost control. It could have been dizziness or slow reflexes. Perhaps both factors were exacerbated by alcohol consumption. But Sergio is sure that if he had not drunk before driving that day, he would not have ended up in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

"As nothing had ever happened to me before, I'd never even had a warning, you become confident. Until the day it does happen and it changes your life. It also changed the lives of my wife María and my daughters Carmen and Paula, who were six and two years old at the time. When you have an accident like that, you're responsible, but your whole family suffers," he says.

Sergio Hijano has been the Malaga representative for the Association for the Prevention of Traffic Accidents (Aesleme) since 2013 and, together with CIFAL Malaga, is a pioneer at national level in the 'The Wrong Side of the Road' campaign, a global initiative launched by the UN to raise awareness of the risks of drink-driving.

"The aim is to raise awareness and inform drivers and road users through real testimonies of people who have been involved in a road accident," explains Sergio. By reading a QR code on the posters installed on a hundred or so city buses and, after a five-minute course, the user interacts with three people who talk about their experience and learn about the risks of drinking and driving. At the end of a short survey, they receive a diploma and are asked to donate one euro to Aesleme for its work in accident prevention.

Real stories

"The figures are alarming. In 2019 there were 1,755 deaths on the road. That's five people a day. Please, let's be aware when we drive. These campaigns are essential. These are real stories and they could happen to any of us. Stories like mine," says Sergio.

"I was very lucky thanks to a guardian angel. A close friend of mine, Rafael, was on his way to work on 18 December and just happened to be passing by when I had the accident. He is a Guardia Civil and managed to keep me alive. I'm quite sure that if he hadn't, I would have died," he says.

He can still easily reel off a list the seriousness of his injuries. "I broke both tibias, fibulas and femurs, my pelvis, my left arm, ulna, radius, wrist and fingers. I punctured a lung and also suffered a complex spinal injury," he explains, pointing to his chest, "from here down I can't feel a thing. I have an 87 per cent disability," he explains.

He was initially transferred to the Axarquía hospital in Torre del Mar where he spent the first three days. His family was given very little hope. After that he was transferred to the Carlos Haya Hospital, where he spent Christmas in intensive care. "It was a very hard time and with campaigns like these we try to prevent what happened to me from happening to others. It is not easy because you go over in your mind again and again that moment and what comes afterwards. We were doing well, me with the family news kiosk and my wife worked in a pharmacy, but everything changed," he adds.

In March he was transferred to the National Paraplegic Hospital in Toledo, where he spent nine months. "I didn't know what to expect, although before they told me I already knew I would never walk again," he says.

Sergio remembers those feelings of anguish, fear and sadness. He kept a bottle of sea water on his bedside table and, from time to time, he would wet his lips and face to be reminded of home.

Life in a wheelchair

"You discover new sensations and adapt to your new life. You learn to dress, to move around, to be intimate with your partner, to be more independent. It's true that guilt follows you at the hardest moments," says Sergio.

He was unable to sit for four months. "My wife had to move to Toledo for work and we left the girls with their grandparents; those five months without seeing them were horrible. You ask yourself a thousand times why you did it."

Sergio had lost 20 kilos and he remembers how he felt when he was first put in a wheelchair. "I just wanted to die; of course the thought of ending it all crosses your mind, but my daughters gave me the strength to get through it. You have to hold on to something, otherwise your life is over. I refused to give up," he says.

Sergio highlights that in these cases, family and psychological help are fundamental. "You set your own limitations. In hospital I got my driving licence, I learned to live again and my wife and I opened a small supermarket. You have to keep going," he explains. At the end of November 2010 he returned home and the following year he started his political career in Vélez-Málaga town hall where he stayed until 2019. "Politics is beautiful but very hard work".

He recalls his first talk with Aesleme, at the Almenara secondary school: "I loved the experience and I started to focus on it fully and today we have reached out to almost 10,000 students a year through conferences, at driving schools, in prisons and so we do our bit to be part of the solution," he says.

Sergio explains that "it is often society itself that reminds you that you are disabled. I don't think about the wheelchair at all, but physical barriers bring you back to reality. Also the way people look at us, that over-protection doesn't help either," he argues.

Sergio is clear about what he will do on 18 December. "Like every year since 2009, I celebrate the day I was born again; my second life, because I can honestly say that today, at 45, I am happier than before the accident that almost made me lose everything. One bad decision can change your life.