The little red Toyota sedan was so close to my back bumper that all I could see in my mirror was the Toyota emblem and the impatient face of the young women behind the wheel. We were in heavy morning traffic. I was going the speed limit which, given conditions, was plenty fast enough. The weather and visibility were good but traffic on 422 through Reading, PA was building toward rush hour. At the first opportunity, the driver jerked the wheel left and accelerated past me. She continued down the road at a speed far higher than the limit, switching lanes with little room between cars without signaling. I just shook my head. It was just another normal day on the roads.
I progressed a bit further and merged on to I-176. I didn’t make it more than a couple miles before traffic came to a halt. Both lanes were shutdown. Clearly something bad had happened. Sure enough there had been a major, multi-vehicle accident with injuries. When we finally began moving again most of it had been cleared but the remnants of two vehicles remained on the side of the road. Both were severely destroyed and showed signs of the jaws of life having been employed. Debris littered the roadway.
It would be easy to blame the weather but it was clear and sunny. It would be easy to blame the darkness but it had been light well before these vehicles would have crashed. It would be easy to use the term “accident”. Except these things are not accidents.
One of the definitions of “accident” is an event that happens by chance or that is without apparent or deliberate cause. That certainly doesn’t apply. All of these events have a cause. Someone who is supposed to be in control of a multi-ton hunk of steel hurling down the highway wasn’t doing what they were supposed to be doing and started an unfortunate chain reaction. Whether they were texting, under the influence, putting on makeup, shaving, eating, or engaging in the multitude of other activities people feel that it is acceptable to do when behind the wheel, the fact is there is a cause.
Right now the hue and cry across the country is for more gun controls laws. Each time there is an incident involving a gun those on the left of the political spectrum call out to end gun violence by passing more laws or banning more guns. Those on the right side of the political spectrum offer their “thoughts and prayers” to the victims. These sentiments are met with derision for not doing enough. I’m not going to go down the gun control political debate. If you know me, you know where I stand. What I don’t get is how one form of preventable, premature death gets so much more attention than another form of preventable, premature death? Why is it a public shooting draws calls for political action yet we take such a fatalistic view about deaths caused by inattentive drivers. Indeed, the comments appearing on social media following a news channel posting about a terrible car crash are filled with “thoughts and prayers” for the victims and families. Any mention that texting or drinking was involved draws responses of “Now isn’t the time for those discussions”. This sounds very familiar to me.
Just to put the problem in perspective, everyone hates AR style rifles right? These guns are mass killing devices that kill thousands of people every year right? Well according FBI statistics not really. In 2016 less than 400 people were killed in the US and US territories by someone using any kind of rifle. At ~102 deaths/day in the US alone, motor vehicle crashes eclipse this in less than a week! Sadly, nearly all of these deaths are preventable by simply slowing down and paying attention.
I passed by the accident scene and continued toward work. I contemplated how those people probably started out their day much like mine and how, for some of them, their lives would likely never be the same again. Someone may have died due to fishing a breakfast burrito out of a bag. Someone may spend the rest of their life in a wheelchair because a person who was supposed to be in control of a car just had to send that “LOL” in response to a cute meme.
It seems silly doesn’t it? As I pondered this, other drivers delayed by the crash whizzed by going far beyond the speed limit. Others tailgated ala Nascar drafting mere feet behind the leader. One driver was frantically texting as the pace line rolled onward at break-neck speed. Unbelievable.
We often are told the roads are getting safer because overall fatalities in traffic crashes are decreasing. I would submit to you that the only reason there are less deaths is because motor vehicles are now built with dozens of protections for occupants. We have more modern materials, ten or more airbags, advanced safety belts that cushion sudden stops, braking assist systems, lane change warnings, smart cruise control, and other features to protect drivers and passengers. When one looks at the skyrocketing amount of deaths and injuries involving pedestrians, cyclists, and other non-automotive road users it is apparent there are still major problems behind the wheel.
We have had far too many school shootings. Nobody, including me, will ever believe it is okay for children to have to worry about being shot while they are at school. But really, statistically, they shouldn’t worry about that. Our children have a far, far greater chance of being killed on their way to or from school (or otherwise on the roads) instead. The chances of a child being killed by a gun in school is 1 in 614,000,000. Meanwhile 1 in 5 16 year old drivers will be in a crash during their first year of driving. Death by car is the single leading cause of death of for 16 to 23 yard olds. (And, oddly, 10 year olds.) Yet 48% of all teen drivers admit to texting and driving!
Again, I’m not here to argue about whether or not we need more gun laws. I will never disagree we shouldn’t be allowing our children to be shot in school or anywhere else. I seek to understand the fatalism around our unwillingness to do anything about automotive deaths. When congress fails to act on gun laws or other public safety measures, people throw their hands up in frustration that they can’t do anything to solve the problem. But that is the very beauty of solving the problem of death on the roadways. You CAN do something about it! All of you. Me. Your brother. Your sister. Your aunts, uncles, great second cousin Fred, and everyone else you know. Next time cousin Fred jokes about how fast he drives or the next time your sister texts you a selfie from behind the wheel come down on them hard and tell them it is simply unacceptable. You can and should refuse to ride with anyone who drives distracted. Parents should set a good example for their children. According to a University of Michigan study, teens whose parents drive distracted are 2 to 4 times more likely to drive distracted. Think about that the next time you have to participate in a meeting from the car while dropping your kid off at school. Perhaps decline the meeting, and catch up later. (I’ve been in a lot of meetings. None of them are that important.)
I beg you to slow down, put two hands on the wheel, and two eyes on the road and expect nothing less of others. There is NO PLACE and I mean NO PLACE you have to get that is so important that it is okay to put lives at risk. Speeding, aggressive driving, texting, stopping for a beer or two on the way home, all these things make us less safe drivers and it is all completely unnecessary.
Finally, remember that we don’t give up our humanity when we enter the roadways on any form of transportation. That other driver, the cyclist, the motorcyclist, the trucker, and the pedestrian all have lives, family, and friends that they are an integral part of just like you. They aren’t an annoyance to be discounted because you are running late.
Please, please, please be safe and courteous behind the wheel and we will all get where we are going alive and well.