How Good Drivers Get Killed

How Good Drivers Get KilledBy Ralph Kinney Bennett

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.

Head-On Impact - 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.

Deadliest Sign - Perhaps the most familiar of all traffic signs -- the red octagonal stop sign -- turns out to be a significant risk to good drivers.

Sixteen percent of drivers in our analysis were killed because another driver either did not see, purposely ignored, or showed poor judgment at a stop sign. For example, says Lt. Scott Hunter, traffic-safety coordinator for the North Carolina Highway Patrol, drivers often stop or slow at a sign and then pull out without bothering to check the intersection for an oncoming car. Or, they misjudge an approaching car's distance and speed and pull in front of it.

Hunter and other police officers advise extra wariness when approaching intersections, even when you have the right of way. Their best tip: as you approach and see a car about to cross or enter the road you're on, don't just look at the car to see if it comes to a full stop. Check the driver too. Is he or she looking your way? Does he or she appear distracted? It could be your best warning of an accident waiting to happen.

Red for Danger - It was a clear June evening in Boca Raton, Fla.; the sun was still up. Neil Marvin was at the wheel of his Mercury Grand Marquis with his wife, Paulette, and four friends.

Marvin, 66, stopped at a traffic light, and then pulled out routinely when it changed to green. Just then, a Mercedes-Benz driven by Robert Carratelli ran the red light at a speed estimated by police at 80 m.p.h.

The Mercedes slammed into the left side of the Mercury, instantly killing Marvin, his wife and all four friends. Carratelli, who had minor injuries, is now appealing a vehicular-homicide conviction.

Red-light running turned out to be another deadly accident for innocent drivers, killing eight percent of them. When the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety monitored a busy intersection in Arlington County, Virginia, for several months, they found a driver running the light every 12 minutes on average. It was as high as once every five minutes during peak rush hours. "That's more than 100 chances a day for an unsuspecting motorist to become a crash victim," says Institute safety expert Richard Retting.

Red-light running is on the rise nationwide. In a six-year study, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that deadly crashes at red lights increased at more than three times the rate of all other types of fatal auto accidents.

To avoid them, the best advice remains the lesson motorists learned from their high school driver-ed teachers: "Even when your light has changed to green, take one more look both ways before proceeding," says Lt. Steve Farago, chief traffic officer of the Mesa, Ariz., Police Department. "You've got to protect yourself. Too many drivers consider the yellow light a 'last chance' to get through an intersection rather than a caution signal. We're trying to cut down on red-light accidents by reminding drivers to brake on yellow, stop on red."

Even if you're tooling around a shopping-mall parking lot, there are traffic signs you must obey. Yet many drivers simply blow them off. As a result, a variety of other "failure to yield" collisions -- beyond traffic signs and stop lights -- make up smaller percentages of driver deaths, but taken together, they can be serious killers. And they occur where there are no stop signs or traffic lights, at unmarked side roads, in driveways, and at entries to shopping-center parking lots. These kinds of failure-to-yield accidents took the lives of 11 percent of our good drivers who had the right of way.

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, 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."

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Who is a good driver? Is it the driver who was lucky enough to have not been faced with any of the above situations, or is it one who can also avoid them. Is a good driver feeling responsible for his own actions alone, or also to his reactions to the actions of another driver.

Not all collisions are avoidable, but we need to drive the road as if they are. Even when a collision is not preventable, it's damages can be minimized and serious injury or lost of human life can be prevented.

Head-on Collisions can be avoided by proper speed and space management, proper road position, daytime running lights, and the ability to perform strong braking and even veer right (even off of the road!) if necessary.

Diagonal collisions at intersections can be avoided through practicing caution around intersections when the GREEN light is on, slowing down if necessay, entering the intersection itself off-throttle while ready to brake, and scanning it from side to side in advance to ensure no cars are likely to burst into it.

Side-Collisions (where a car from the near lane swerves at you), rear-end collisions (where a car bumps you after you stopped) and other kind of situations that can be imposed on a good driver by another one -- can all be resolved.

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