I want to begin this post with a disclaimer of sorts, because I’m not in the best mood today and I realize even as I flesh this post out in my head that some of it’s going to read as antagonistic, and that it will almost certainly be disorganized. I just want all of you reading to know in advance that, while this post was indeed sparked by some comments on another post I wrote this week, nothing I’m about to write is intended as a personal attack on anyone.
There. Let’s go.
One of the things that really distressed me in the weeks after Ginny’s accident was the sentiment, both implied and expressed, that if she hadn’t been driving an SUV the kids in the other car would have lived. Aside from the fact that this is a really inappropriate and insensitive thing to imply or express to someone with a loved one in intensive care, it seems to me to miss a larger point entirely. Because, yeah. Ginny was driving an SUV – a small SUV, but an SUV nonetheless. She was driving that SUV under the speed limit, safely, and responsibly in her own lane, though, and she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
We love the kids we lost. We miss them. They were good, responsible kids with bright futures ahead of them. They weren’t messing around. They weren’t doing anything wrong. They, too, were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the driver made a mistake – a mistake that every one of us has made at some point while driving. She overcorrected. That’s it.
To imply that my sister was somehow responsible for what happened because of the vehicle she chose to drive is unfathomable. It shouldn’t matter if she was driving a Geo Metro, or a Buick, or a Jeep, or a freaking tank. She was driving it safely and responsibly in her own lane.
I hear people go on self-righteous rants all the time about how SUVs are unsafe. You know what I find unsafe? OTHER DRIVERS.
Before I moved, I put over a hundred miles on my car every day of the week. I did a lot of driving. Most people put 12,000 to 15,000 miles on a car in a year – I put 30,000 or more. And in those 30,000 miles I drove every year, I cannot keep count of how many times I had to take immediate action to evade another driver.
Driving is a serious responsibility that most of us don’t usually take seriously. I know tons of people who, when you ask them how long it takes to get somewhere, will say something like, “It takes three hours, but I can make it in two.” Because it’s a race. Because we should apparently brag about our willingness to drive too fast. I rarely drive too fast, but I’m not perfect either. I count myself in on this. Sometimes I talk on my cell phone while I’m driving. Sometimes I’m switching my CDs or reaching for something. Sometimes I’m eating. In those times when I’m doing things that distract me from the road, I’m a hazard to other drivers – and it doesn’t matter what the logo is on my steering wheel in those moments.
Last weekend our community lost four more teenagers in a car accident near my home. Jamie knew at least one of them. From most accounts, they were going a little too fast, and the driver went off the road a little, overcorrected, and hit a truck carrying wood. All four kids – 16, 16, 15, and 14 – were killed instantly. They were good kids. They were bright and promising and they had tons and tons of people who loved them, people who are just devastated that their children are gone forever.
They, too, were in a car. But it was a sports car, with a young driver behind the wheel, and when it went off the road a little I’m sure he probably panicked and jerked the wheel back the other way, and then it was too late. I’m sure that’s what happened because I did it more than once when I was a young driver.
There’s a lot of talk about safety standards and crash test ratings and SUVs vs. cars, and that’s all well and good. We want car manufacturers to make safer vehicles so that we have a better chance of surviving a serious accident. Personally, I’d like to see side-curtain airbags become as standard as front airbags have become.
But we should also be having conversations about how to be safer drivers, and how to make sure that our children are as well-prepared for the road as they possibly can be, and that we buckle our seatbelts every single time we get into a car, whether we’re driving across the street or across the country.
I had a conversation with a state trooper once who told me that over 90% of car crashes (and he emphasized the word choice of “crash” over “accident”) are caused by driver error. I believe that.
I follow the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s press releases and safety tests with great interest since Ginny’s accident, and it’s heartening to see from their data that fewer young drivers are involved in fatal crashes today than they were a decade ago. That means we’re going in the right direction. But seven lost teenagers in sixteen months is seven too many, and that makes me think we need to do more.
And while young drivers may be getting better training than they used to, we can’t neglect the older population who hasn’t had the benefit of such training recently, if ever. I became a licensed driver less than ten years ago, and the majority of my behind-the-wheel driver training was done at a table at Hardee’s. My road test required me to drive from one exit to the next (less than a mile) on the highway, and to parallel park on a deserted street, and to stop at red lights, and that’s about it.
Finally, we need to take more responsibility for our own actions, and especially when we’re driving with young passengers, we need to make sure we’re setting the best example for them. If I’m driving my car without a seat belt on and talking on the cell phone and bragging about my ability to make a trip in half the time, and I have a teenager or a child in the passenger seat, not only am I actively endangering that kid, but I’m teaching her that my behavior is okay.
I know we can do better. We must.
And I realize that this post evolved into something completely different than what it was when I began it, and that’s okay.