Dancing with Death on American Roads

HighwayWe killed more than 2100 American children on our highways in 2003. That’s almost as many American soldiers as have died in Iraq since we first invaded.

The loss of American children to alcohol-impaired drivers receives less attention than the loss of American soldiers in a several-years’ drawn-out war. Not to diminish the loss that the families of those soldiers feel, but a co-worker occasionally points out to me that we murder about 8,500 of our fellow citizens each year (data opens up in a spreadsheet you can download from the F.B.I. Web site).

I have only witnessed one murder in my lifetime. I hope I don’t see any more. But I’ve had many near-misses in traffic accidents. American drivers may or may not be any worse than drivers in other countries, but we certainly don’t devote enough effort to helping each other survive on our own roads. While I cannot do anything about the murder rate (other than to not add to it), I can (and do) strive to help keep the road accident death rate as low as possible.

The earliest near-miss I recall happened when I was 17. I was driving an old Ford LTD down a highway when the hood front hood flew up and I nearly spun out of control. Somehow, I managed to stop without careening into the cars beside me. Several vehicles stopped around me and the drivers got out to make sure I was able to get under way safely. That particular stretch of road was a bridge spanning the Savannah river between Georgia and South Carolina. Had I lost control of my vehicle, no one would have been able to get out of the way.

Not long after that, I was driving across the same bridge when two large semi trucks coverged upon me. One came in from the left and one came in from the right. Neither driver made any attempt to slow down or even honk at me. Our three lands became two lanes in less distance than I had available to accelerate past them. I had no choice but to hit the brakes and only barely got out of the way as the two trucks came side-by-side into the merging lanes. I didn’t get so much as a backwards look from either driver to see if I was okay.

Truck drivers are generally regarded as being among the safest drivers in America. They are taught to be extremely careful when navigating their vehicles, and they are not allowed to drive more than 10 hours per day. But accidents still happen, and they are not always due to the truck drivers’ negligence. My father once told me about a truck than ran amok on a Texas highway. The driver was apparently high on PCP or something and he drove up the wrong side of the highway, hitting vehicles and running over people.

I remember being forced off a busy street in Marietta, GA by a local business delivery truck that just jumped into my lane. I had to drive up onto a sidewalk without thinking to avoid being crushed. The girl who was with me at the time didn’t even have time to panic (not that she was prone to panic — but you’d think I’d at least have the satisfying memory of a blood-curdling scream). I could have hit a pedestrian, but the whole thing happened so quickly, I just never had a chance to think.

When I was 18 I took my sister and one of her friends to visit my grand-parents in Flroida. As we were coming back, somewhere on I-75 north of Macon, a heavy thunderstorm cut loose and showered the highway with some of the heaviest rain I have ever driven through. I tried to do the right thing and slow down, but everyone else on the highway kept driving at 60-65 miles per hour. This was at night and the traffic was bumper-to-bumper (most likely this was a holiday weekend, but I don’t remember the exact date). I had borrowed my brother’s old Pontiac Le Mans (and gotten a speeding ticket on the way down to Florida, so I was really trying to be careful).

Well, slowing down was just not an option. So I stayed where I was in the right lane and just hoped no one went sliding off the road. A huge semi came up behind me. Another one came up beside me. Suddenly, to my horror, the semi on my left decided to move into the right lane. I hit the horn on the steering wheel to warn him off. Nothing happened. My sister’s friend stared at the truck in petrified horror. My sister, who had been sleeping in the back seat, shot up and stared at the steering wheel as I beat on it frantically. No horn sounded.

I had half a second to look over to my right to see that there was barely any shoulder to the road. I might have been able to ease off a little and started to move that way, but the truck driver behind me beat his own horn and flashed his lights. The truck on the left shifted back into his lane. Had I fully moved onto the shoulder, which was very soft, maybe I would have been able to stop. Maybe we would have gone flying off into the trees lining the highway. I don’t know.

A few years later, while returning to Atlanta from another Florida trip, I decided to take the I-285 bypass around the east side of the city. I don’t know why I went that way, but I was very tired. At the time I lived on the northwest side, but I-75 comes up in the southeast corner of Atlanta. So I drove off onto what I thought was the exit for I-285 east. It turned out to be an exit road, and as I drove in pounding rain at 60 miles per hour down this two-lane road, I thought to myself, “This doesn’t look right.”

The next moment I saw those right-arrow signs that terminate a stretch of pavement, indicating a road is making a 90-degree turn. I swerved as well as I could to avoid the signs but went flying off the end of the road. I actually got some elevation out of the angle of the pavement, so the front end of the car pointed up into the sky (and I saw nothing, as not only was it raining but I was also driving at night). After a moment, as I was screaming those famous last two words all Americans scream when they think they are about to die, the front end of the car angled down and I saw a field of mud in front of me.

I couldn’t think of anything else to do but gun the engine. I hit the mud with a big floopy splash and pounded the gas pedal and wiggled the car back and forth. All I cared about was that I keep the vehicle moving because I didn’t want to stop in the middle of a muddy field. I probably didn’t have enough money for a tow truck (this was back in my college days, I think).

Well, I managed to wiggle out of that field and got back on the highway and drove home a little more awake than I had been.

Feel like you would be safe enough with me at the wheel? I’ve got more hair-raising stories.

There was the time I was driving down a snow-and-ice covered highway (at a very low rate of speed) and hit a patch of black ice. My car went spinning across the intersection where that highway crossed another busy highway. I ended up facing the wrong way but on the correct side of the highway. All the other cars around me stopped and waited for me to get my bearings, turn around, and go on about my business. That same day, I watched a Cadillac slide off the road and into a ditch, so I guess I was lucky.

There was the time when an ice storm came through Atlanta and I found myself driving down a narrow road. Don’t recall where I was going (probably home) but I hit another patch of black ice. This time I knew enough to turn the wheel against the direction of the spin. That forced the car to slide straight rather than left into oncoming traffic or right into the very deep ditch beside me. I slid for many, many feet until I came to a full stop. I was on my side of the road and pointed in the right direction. When I tried to go forward again, the car started to spin out from under me into the ditch. That was just a very dangerous section of road.

There was the time I went through an intersection during a rain storm and my car spun out across the intersection as other cars passed through it. I didn’t know what hydroplaning was until that night.

There was the time I was driving down U.S. Highay 41 in Marietta, minding my own business, when some idiot decided he was going the wrong way. He hit his breaks as he approached me from the opposite direction, cut in front of me, and turned around. I hit my brakes so hard my car spun out of control. By the time I stopped spinning I was facing north (I had been traveling south) in the northbound lanes. The idiot drove off without so much as a “Sorry about that — I’m an idiot!”

Another time I was stopped at an intersection, sitting in a left-turn lane. There was a van in front of me, also stopped. Traffic was coming in the opposition direction. Some kid on a motorcycle pulled up beside us and then cut across the intersection. He got through okay but the lady driving the van decided she had enough time to do it, too. The cars coming the other way went screeching and careening in various directions, including the guy who ended up hitting me head on.

And then there was the time I pulled into a right-turn lane, began slowing down, and the cars in front of me opened up a gap and waved another car to make a turn in front of me. I slammed into that car hard enough to knock it off the road. The paramedics tied me to a board and hauled me off to the hospital. I came out of shock a few hours later and that’s when I started to feel the pain of whiplash.

Through all these accidents and mishaps I did have sense enough to wear my seat belt. I’ve learned, since I was a foolish young driver, to slow down, look ahead, and assume that the other guy is an idiot who doesn’t bother to look where he’s going. I’m not in such a hurry that I have to get anywhere that fast. I wish other people felt the same way. If I miss a turn off, I don’t hit my breaks and back up. I wait for the next exit. There is always another place to stop and turn off or turn around somewhere down the road.

But it takes most drivers a long, long time to appreciate that. Too long, in some cases. Thousands of people die in otherwise preventable accidents every year. We don’t devote the resources to teaching ourselves how to drive responsibly on our roads that we can.

Cindy Sheehan lost a son in Iraq, and she has devoted her life to bringing the troops home to America. Frankly, in my opinion, if she devoted all that energy to helping make our highways safe — to teaching people to drive more responsibly — she’d have a better chance of helping to save lives that will otherwise be needlessly lost.

As for the murder rate: well, we need to figure out why people cross that line and see what it takes to discourage them from doing so. Maybe improving economic opportunities here at home will help — maybe improving them in other countries will help. I can only take up one cause at a time.