Ready for these sad, sad stories to end

By Bob Buckel | Published Saturday, March 30, 2013

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He was a printer, his shop right next door to my dad’s office. His son was an Eagle Scout, a leader in my troop.

One Friday night, coming back from a football game, he got hit by a drunk driver.

Bob Buckel

Bob Buckel

She was my first date. She moved away sometime in high school and we lost touch, but she graduated early and we started writing. Two days after I graduated high school, she was driving alone when she hit an overpass.

He was a surgeon, a Texas A&M graduate eager to save lives in our hospital’s new ER. He did, but just a couple of years later he was moving when he and his little girl crashed their rental truck.

Such tragic, tragic waste. The stories go on and on. Crosses by the roadside multiply.

Statistics can make your eyes glaze over, and as we rush down the road, we learn to ignore the crosses.

But we need to remember there are stories behind the numbers, a living human being behind every roadside cross.

None of them meant for it to happen, any more than you and I do as we get behind the wheel every day.

In 2011, in the United States, 32,367 people died in automobile accidents. That number is shrinking – it’s been down 24 of the last 32 years as seat belt use has become law, airbags have become standard equipment and roads and cars have gotten safer.

From a high of 54,589 traffic fatalities in 1972, it has dropped more than 20,000. At 10.4 fatalities per 100,000 population, the death rate in automobile accidents in 2011 was the lowest since 1918.

Today, at 1.1 fatality for every 100 million vehicle miles traveled, that statistic is the lowest it’s been since tracking began in 1929.

Still, nearly 90 people die on our nation’s roadways every day. If that number includes someone who was part of your life, that becomes a day you’ll never forget.

Safer roads and safer cars should keep pushing that number down, but there are also some things we, as drivers, can do right now to avoid being involved in crashes.

According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Association (NHTSA) there are four key factors in every car crash: 1) the driver; 2) the vehicle; 3) the roadway, and 4) atmospheric conditions.

Roads and weather are not under our control. But all of us can make sure our vehicles are in good operating condition, and we can – to put it simply – just be more careful.

NHTSA studied more than 5,400 crashes from July 2005 to December 2007. They didn’t just compile data from accident reports – their investigators were on the scene before the vehicles were moved, interviewing officers, victims and witnesses. It’s the most comprehensive study ever done of automobile accidents in the U.S.

In crashes where the car was a factor, failure of the tires or wheels was the most frequent reason, followed by the failure of the braking system. Making sure your tires and wheels are good and your brakes work will greatly lessen the chances of an accident.

The human factor is a bit more complex.

According to the NHTSA, about 36 percent of the vehicles in crashes were turning or crossing an intersection, while another 22 percent ran off the edge of the roadway and 11 percent failed to stay in their proper lane.

As a driver, be especially alert when you’re turning or going through an intersection. Even if you have a green light, or you’ve stopped at a stop sign, take an extra look and make sure someone isn’t blowing through it. If you’re just reasonably careful, your chance of being in a crash plummets.

In cases when an accident could be directly attributed to the driver, here’s what it came down to:

  • a “recognition error” – 42 percent of those drivers were inattentive, distracted by something outside or inside the vehicle, or not watching the road.
  • a “decision error” – 34 percent were driving aggressively or driving too fast.
  • a “performance error” – 10 percent just reacted badly by panicking, overcorrecting or going the wrong way.

Among those “inattentive” drivers, 18 percent were engaged in at least one “interior non-driving activity” while barreling down the road. The most frequent was conversation, either with passengers or on a cell phone. Fatigue was cited as another major factor, and often the problem was that drivers did not adjust to road conditions such as rain-slick highways, ice or debris. Others went too fast for a curve or guessed wrong about another driver’s actions.

In short, pay attention to what you’re doing. An automobile is no place to let yourself get distracted. Put the conversation on hold, put the phone down. Stop multi-tasking and just drive.

Get some rest, and if it’s rainy or icy, for your own sake and the sake of others, slow down and be careful.

Drivers have an unspoken pact with each other, that they’re operating their vehicle safely, they’re rested, they’re sober and they’re paying attention.

We all know that sometimes the people you share the road with fail on every count.

You have no control over them, but you do have control over yourself and your vehicle. Just do what you can, and your chances of becoming a statistic – the sad story behind a roadside cross – go way, way down.

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