Louis Thorold was “just a perfect little baby, smiley and happy”, recalls his father, Chris. One of the five-month-old’s favourite toys was a plush elephant with crinkly ears. His mother, Rachael, remembers how relaxed Louis was, sleeping easily and even nodding off in her arms when she took him for weekly swimming lessons. “We were so happy, we thought we had a lifetime of days like this ahead.”
Yet for eight weeks after her son was killed in a road accident that left her with catastrophic injuries, Rachael had no memory that she had even had a child.
Rachael Thorold was walking Louis in his pram next to the A10 in Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire, on 22 January 2021, when a 75-year-old woman pulled into the path of a van, which mounted the pavement as a result of the ensuing collision.
Chris buried his son while his partner of 19 years lay in a coma. It was uncertain whether she would survive.
Instead of celebrating baby milestones, Rachael spent her first Mother’s Day in a neuro-rehabilitation ward unable to walk, read or write.
In August, Shelagh Robertson was found not guilty of causing Louis’s death through careless driving by reason of insanity, with jurors believing that her undiagnosed dementia had affected her capacity.
Nearly two years on from the tragedy, as Rachael continues her “incredible” rehabilitation journey, Chris explains: “The only real way to gain justice was to try to make sure this never happens to anyone again.”
Children, specifically, don’t have a voice in road safety, he says, though 50 a year die on the UK’s roads and thousands more are seriously injured. Worldwide, the biggest killer of children under 16 is road deaths.
The Louis Thorold Foundation, set up in memory of their son, aims to reduce this to zero. “It’s a massive aspiration. But technologically, there is no reason why anyone should die on the roads anywhere in the world these days,” Chris says.
Our society tolerates pedestrian deaths, Chris says – the legacy of a car-is-king culture promoted since the 1960s by manufacturers, road designers and motorists’ organisations. But this is changing, not least as our awareness of the environmental damage done by cars has increased.
“There’s almost a perfect storm of conditions now,” says Chris, pointing to Vision Zero, the multinational campaign to end traffic deaths, as well as the Twenty’s Plenty campaign in the UK, both of which the foundation promotes.
Since Rachael left hospital, the couple have moved away from Waterbeach, but successfully campaigned to improve the road system where Louis died.
“We wanted to start with something that we could actually achieve,” says Chris. “We reduced the speed limit from 50mph to 40mph and completely redesigned the junction, installing a crossing, and changed about two and a half miles of pavement.”
Since then, Cambridgeshire council has also employed a behavioural psychologist in its team. It is understood to be the first local authority in the country to look at how people interact in roadside environments.
And this coming spring, the foundation will push for the introduction of regular medical examinations for older drivers, to ensure fitness to get behind the wheel.
There is evident frustration and weariness from Chris at how the criminal justice system dealt with Robertson – who, the family say, has never expressed remorse or concern to them.
“This was somebody who was clearly medically unfit to drive a car, but the system allowed her to drive it with no check.
“I’m not saying we should target demographics but there needs to be a way, once we reach a certain age, that there should be a periodic medical examination to say you can drive.”
Since Louis’s death, the family have heard from thousands of others who are concerned that elderly relatives have “nearly killed somebody, or themselves”.
For Rachael, who still has no memory of the accident itself, the trial brought some understanding. “I realised I was a victim and there was nothing I could do. I had felt so guilty and asked, ‘Why couldn’t I have done something?’” she says.
Nearly two years on, she continues to attend rehabilitation therapy sessions almost daily. She still struggles with word-finding and fatigue as a result of the brain injury she sustained.
“I didn’t think she’d survive when this happened,” says Chris. “Her injuries were just horrific, and I didn’t ever think she’d come home. But she defied all that.”
“She’s just an incredible person,” he adds. Her will to recover feeds into their determination to stop preventable tragedies happening to any other family. “It’s still extremely difficult, but it’s not going to be the end of either of it. For Louis, we’ve got to make him proud.”