I always thought that accidents on the road happened to the other guy. That all changed in February 1999.
At the time, I was a resident of another state, and I was returning home after running a brief errand. As I approached an intersection with the green light in my favor, I was thinking that I would be home sooner than I’d expected. Suddenly, I realized that something had just struck the driver’s side of the car near the front fender with tremendous force, and I was being helplessly propelled off the road. There was no time to alter the course of events. I couldn’t brake, I couldn’t swerve. A split second later, the car stopped with a horrific noise, and I sat stunned in the driver’s seat, still not fully comprehending what had happened. The air bag lay collapsed around me, but I must have lost consciousness because I didn’t remember it deploying. I unbuckled my seatbelt, and slowly got out of the car, disoriented and still unable to understand what had suddenly turned a routine trip into a near-fatal accident – a teenage driver, traveling at a high rate of speed, had run a red light and crashed into my car, pushing me and my vehicle into a utility pole.
I survived the crash with minor injuries – otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this column or someone else would be writing it. I’m here today because air bags are designed to work with seat belts, and I was wearing my seat belt. The air bag did its job, preventing serious injury from the dashboard or steering column. And because I was wearing my seat belt I was not ejected from the car, nor was I airborne through my own windshield. The accident changed forever my belief that I was completely in charge of my own vehicle and could react in enough time to avoid being hurt or killed – Yet I had buckled up only because I knew that if I didn’t, I could have been stopped by the police for failure to wear a seat belt and gotten a ticket.
Here in Maine, despite the law, many drivers still don’t wear seatbelts, even though their lives may depend on their compliance. Consider, for example, the following facts from the state of Maine’s own official website:
– Occupants not using belts were 2.8 times more likely to be hospitalized or die with a head injury than belted occupants.
-Increasing the national seat belt use rate would prevent an estimated 5,536 fatalities, 132,670 injuries and save the nation $8.8 billion annually, not to mention the incalculable cost of pain and suffering.
–Seat belts reduce the risk of fatality by 45 percent, and moderate to critical injury by 50 percent. More than half of the lives lost in Maine traffic crashes in 2005 occurred when passengers or drivers were not wearing seat belts.
Yet anyone driving the state’s highways can verify that despite these unsurprising conclusions, some people still don’t buckle up. As many as one-third of those behind the wheel – and that includes many people driving trucks – don’t feel the need to exercise this simple precaution.
All too often, we read about accidents in which the occupants are ejected from their vehicles, to suffer serious injury or death. This indifference to personal welfare is especially distressing when young drivers are at the wheel or children are passengers because of the poor and unsafe example being set by adults. The fact is that when kids see their parents buckle up, they will do it too.
So next time you get behind a wheel, shed the illusion that you are totally in control and will always be able to anticipate or avoid an accident. That will not always be the case. You may have time to swerve or slow down, but as you are being thrown into your own dashboard or hurtling from your vehicle, you will never have enough time to do the one thing that would have saved your life or the lives of others – buckle up your seatbelt– but by then it will be too late. Trust me. I speak from experience.