On a sunny May afternoon, contractor Philip Swann, 48, drove west on two-lane Route 234 toward his home in Newburg, Md. Three employees were in the pickup truck with him, hitching a ride home. Swann was looking forward to dinner with his wife and three sons.
As Swann headed west, an eastbound Buick veered onto his side of the road. At the wheel was a 16-year-old girl driving on her learner's permit. She was trying to pass a minivan, but had failed to see Swann's pickup. The vehicles slammed into each other head-on. Swann's truck turned upside down and exploded in flames. Swann and one of his passengers were killed; the other two were severely burned. The teenager and her mother, who was also in the car, were badly injured.
A simple error on a clear day, by a novice driver on a straight stretch of road, cost two men their lives and left three young boys fatherless. Every day in America good drivers, obeying speed limits and the rules of the road, are nonetheless injured or killed by careless, drunk, inexperienced or reckless drivers.
So how do these roadway accidents happen? And is there anything you can do to avoid them?
Reader's Digest asked statisticians at the National Safety Council to analyze the nation's 41,611 traffic deaths in 1999 (the latest available data). They were asked to determine common ways that "good" drivers -- any of those found not at fault in an accident -- were killed. Here are the sobering facts.
The kind of accident that killed Philip Swann and his friend is a top killer of innocent drivers. Head-ons killed 42 percent of the good drivers in our survey. For those behind the wheel, death by an oncoming auto can be particularly devastating because of the laws of physics: the speed of both cars multiplies the violence of the collision.
And they are often the most sudden and unavoidable. "It doesn't appear that Swann had time to take evasive action. It was over in a second," says Maryland State Police Sgt. Randy Stephens, an accident investigator.
Surprisingly, our study shows that only six percent of head-on collisions were caused by drivers passing at inopportune times. Twenty percent occurred on curves where often a driver going too fast veered into the opposite lane. But the great majority, 63 percent, happened when drivers were steering straight. The crashes were likely caused by drivers who were distracted by other things (kids, changing a CD, talking on a cell phone), or who fell asleep, or nearly so, and drifted into oncoming traffic.
We found that more than half of these head-ons occurred in daylight and more than 80 percent of them in dry weather. "That tracks with our experience," says Stephens. "More fatal accidents of every type seem to occur in nice weather when drivers may relax their guard; in bad weather, the majority of drivers tend to be more cautious, more attentive."
Is there anything you can do to reduce the risk of meeting another car head-on? There is one measure that eliminates much of the risk. Forget the scenic route and head for the highway. Use major highways where traffic flow is separated by medians, and access is controlled by on- and off-ramps.
The most important conclusion to draw from the statistics compiled by the National Safety Council is this: stick to major highways whenever you can. An overwhelming 86 percent of traffic fatalities happen on side roads and byways. Only 14 percent occur on major highways, according to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Says driving-safety consultant Lawrence Lonero, of Northpoint Associates in Ontario, Canada: "My wife and I took a trip throughout the eastern and southeastern United States on the interstates and, amazing as it may seem, we never saw an accident in 5000 miles of driving."
And most obvious of all: wear your seat belt, all the time. Period. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says seat belts reduce the risk of fatal injury by 45 percent in a car and 60 percent in a light truck.
But even with every safety precaution taken, says Gary Magwood, a driving educator and a contributor to Drivers.com, a driver-safety website, motorists must remember that the driver's seat is an inherently unsafe place to be. "Learn to use your eyes to look far down the road. Learn to spot problems before they happen," he says. "And remember that the safest vehicles on the best-designed highways on clear, sunny days are driven by fallible human beings who can crash into each other."