coverstory (2007-44)

Denial 

Feature Story

Ignoring the daily risk of death or injury in automobile accidents may be our biggest collective neurosis

by Jack Neely

There was a car wreck in my neighborhood late one night last month. As wrecks go, it was an astonishing one. A car traveling at an apparently high speed went airborne on a little hill, spun out upon landing, veered into one yard then crossed the street into another, took out a stop sign, careened through a yard, smashed through an overgrown hedgerow and fence into another yard, knocked a car parked in a driveway against a house, sideswiped a tree, and took out a mailbox before skidding to a backward stop. The driver died instantly, decapitated behind the wheel of a shiny new car that seemed strangely little damaged except for a scrape and a broken window, its headlights still on. When I got there, both passengers were injured and wandering around bewildered, one bleeding from the head, not yet aware that he had broken bones. Groggy neighbors were already doing what they could, grateful that emergency vehicles arrived quickly: at least five police cars on the scene, an ambulance, two fire trucks. Ambulances took the survivors away. Rural Metro had to bring in special equipment to cut out the dead man's body. Emergency crews were on the scene for about two hours. They parked the truck so as to screen their grim work from casual view; police told curious neighbors to move along. You don't want to see this, they said. Seeing the consequences of a bad car wreck isn't easy to live with. Go back to sleep. After they removed the body and loaded it into an ambulance, they covered the opened part of the car before they loaded the car onto a flatbed truck and hauled it away. To a close-knit neighborhood where nothing ever happens, the wreck seemed cataclysmic. Neighbors, some almost as stunned as they might have been if they'd been in the wreck themselves, watched TV that day, and the day after, expecting some word about the survivors. One heard something about it on the radio. A day and a half later, it was described, in brief, on a website. It was apparently never mentioned on any of the local TV news stations. It did get an item in the daily, but only two days later: three paragraphs, under the heading â“In Brief,â” inside the B section. There was no mention of passengers, injured or otherwise. There was no mention of seat belts or alcohol or a high rate of speed, or of dismemberment. Just a car that somehow â“went out of control,â” killing its driver. Went out of control is an old newspaper cliché, perhaps advised by a nervous corporate lawyer. A driver lost control of his car. It's a legally safe way to describe any number of accidents. I first noticed it when I started reading newspapers as a kid. I imagined that bad cars sometimes just went wild, that the steering wheel started spinning out of the driver's grasp. The driver had control, but then he just lost it. Phrased that way, the driver seems a passive victim. Maybe it's legally expedient to describe individual cases that way, until a jury makes a determination, if it comes to that. But we should know by now that most car wrecks have perpetrators. Often it's something they've done successfully a hundred times before, speeding, or slipping past a stop sign or red light, following close enough to read a bumper sticker.

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Some items in obituary columns catch your attention, especially when they show a photograph of a healthy-looking young person, and an age, 19, or 25, or 31. Usually they don't answer the question you want the answer to. Cause of death, in general, is missing in obituaries. Every once in a while, though, there's a line like, â“died suddenly on Tuesday as the result of an automobile accident.â” You read it, puzzled, because you don't remember reading about the accident itself. Maybe it didn't make the news. I came to understand that dying in a car wreck is no longer big news. As it turns out, dying in a car wreck is pretty common. On average, someone dies on Knox County roads every four and a half days. If a man's been murdered in the projects, there'd be a story about it, probably on the front page. If he'd died of E. coli or shigella, television and newspaper coverage would pile on. But it was nothing like that: it was just another car wreck. We dismiss car wrecks with a checklist. Alcohol related? Check yes or no. Seat belt? Check yes or no. Next subject. Every car wreck has its own narrative. As driver or passenger, I've been in about six. Friends have described to me intimate details of more than 100 others. Every one is a complex mixture of the mundane and the remarkable, elements that were predictable and elements that weren't predictable at all, to anybody. But you can't write a novel about every one. In the end, it's just a car wreck, and a dead person. News is about the new. Fatal car wrecks are old. They've been happening in Knoxville for a century. They keep happening year after year, in numbers that are weirdly predictable.

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Automobiles are the most common of the major forms of transportation in America, and in spite of steel reinforced bodies, air bags, improved shoulder harnesses, and other improvements, they're still the most dangerous. Buses, trains, and planes crash, too, and when they do, they make the news. In terms of deaths per 100,000 miles traveled, none of them are nearly as dangerous as driving personal vehicles. If 300 people die in a jetliner crash, it's major national news, the top story at 11, the front page the next day. But if the same 300 people had died in separate car wrecks, it would be strictly local newsâ"and hardly that. Of all fatal accidents in general, automobile accidents are by far the most common sort. More Americans die in car wrecks every year than die in falls, in fires, by accidental poisonings, by firearms accidents, by suffocation, in airplane crashes, etc. In fact, victims of fatal car wrecks are more common than victims of all those other varieties of accidents combined. The annual death toll for car wrecks in the U.S. is usually somewhere in excess of 42,000 people. That total has been strangely consistent, in the 40,000s nearly every year, since the early â’70s. The fact that the population is growing, and the body count is not, means the death rate is coming down a little, perhaps as a result of technological improvements, but the body count is as high as ever. In Tennessee, the rate of car-wreck deaths is significantly higher: about 30 percent higher than the U.S. average, in terms of deaths per million vehicle miles. In rate of traffic fatalities, Tennessee is the eighth most dangerous state in the nation. The Tennessee driver is about as safe as the average American driver was in 1991, before air bags were standard equipment. In Tennessee alone, in a typical year, automobile accidents cause close to 80,000 injuries and fatalities. Of course, even non-fatal crashes bear a high price. In a typical year, in Tennessee alone, there are close to 200,000 car wrecks, about one for every 30 citizens. Most are just expensive and annoying. The annual cost of Tennessee car wrecks is about $4.6 billion, which amounts to about $800 a year for every man, woman, and child in the state, every year. We spend more to deal with the consequences of car wrecks than we do on K-12 education. High as they are, the bills usually aren't considered the worst consequence of car wrecks. Injuries are complicated, and hard to quantify. Some are neck strains, better the next day. Other injuries billed as â“non-fatalâ” include quadriplegia and comas. Some of those get better eventually, some don't. There's less ambiguity in death statistics. Depending on the year, the number of people killed in Tennessee car wrecks every year is over 1,000â"in 2006, it was 1,287, slightly more than the year before. Think of an impressive audience at the Tennessee Theatre. It's close to the traffic-death toll for the entire nation of Australia, where automobile carnage has been condemned as a â“national tragedy.â” On a per-capita basis, Tennesseans are more than twice as likely to be killed in car wrecks as Australiansâ"or Canadians, or Irish. Tennesseans are more than three times more likely to be killed than citizens of Great Britain, Sweden, or the Netherlands. Tennessee's per-capita death rate is higher than that of any of the 30 industrialized nations participating in the International Road Traffic and Accident Database. Since 1999, the number of Knox County fatalities has hovered between 65 and 80. In city-limits Knoxville alone, there are typically just over 12,000 car crashes a year, over 2,000 of which involve one or more injuries, ranging from scrapes and bruises to quadriplegia. Since 2000, according to Knoxville Police Department reports, the number killed per year within city limits has ranged from 31 to 43. (Those city figures are strictly KPD-attended wrecks, by the way. The total number killed in Knoxville car accidents is usually greater. The Tennessee Highway Patrol, which handles many wrecks on the interstate and other highways, keeps its own data.) Becky Brack is the KPD's crash analyst. Car wrecks are all so predictable, Brack says, that she can tell you with some confidence how many collisions any given intersection will witness in a given year. â“I just can't tell you exactly when they'll happen,â” she says. â“People just think that's the price you pay for being mobile. People don't think they're accountable,â” she says. â“They're swerving in the other lanes, tailgating, talking on the phone....â” The way she talks about drivers, we begin to sound like warm-blooded crash-test dummies, fulfilling our destiny daily. She says a lot of it has to do with the American romance with the car as an intimate, reliable, safe environment, regardless of what's going on outside it. â“Because they're in their car, they should be able to do what they want to. That's their kingdom. They've lost the sense of danger. That's just not there.â” They've got their sound system, their reclining chair, their cup holder. Maybe the scene out the windshield is like something on TV. â“They feel autonomous,â” she says. â“They feel like I can do anything I want to. â“When we started having cameras at red lights, the hell people raised was amazing to me. If they hadn't been breaking the law, they should have no problem with it. Crashes occur when somebody breaks the law. â“You're accountable to the people on the road with you.â” She says it as if she knows it's a controversial idea. A private citizen with nothing but a car can quickly turn into an all-too-public threat.

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Statistics suggest that seat belts save many lives, but of the local fatalities Brack has studied, she says, â“quite a few were buckled.â” Statewide, according to 2005 statistics, about 39 percent of traffic fatalities are wearing seat belts. The fact that the general usage of seat belts (by non-victims) is now about twice that figure strongly suggests that seat belts improve the odds of surviving most wrecks, but they're no guarantee. Too much faith in seat belts and airbags can contribute to that false sense of invulnerability. She says Knoxvillians are more likely to be injured in a car wreck than to be robbed or assaulted, but it's the criminal injuries that people fear most. Self-defense courses are popular. â“They don't think of crashes as a concern.â” â“The biggest problem,â” Brack says, â“is the alcohol.â” Brack says at least half fatal car wrecks in Knoxville involve alcoholâ"50-65 percent, she saysâ"and even more seem to involve intoxication of some sort. After alcohol, cocaine and cocaine derivatives are implicated. Then marijuana. She knows about the truisms that marijuana doesn't dangerously impair driving. â“My kids say that. We said that, too. Get over it,â” she says. â“You don't smoke it because it doesn't do something to you.â” She cites a recent case of a 59-year-old woman killed in a car wreck who turned into traffic. She tested negative for alcohol and other drugs, but markedly positive for marijuana. â“The Nashville paper does something interesting,â” she says. â“They always publish the BAC [blood-alcohol content] levelsâ” of DUI arrests, she says. â“That way, when they go back to work, they can't say, 'I just had a couple of beers.'â” The rub is that people who are opposed to drunk driving on principle may feel more confident about it after a few drinks. â“People think they can driveâ” after drinking, Brack says. â“People think they can dance and sing. That's why karaoke's so popular.â” It's not the only preventable problem. She sounds exasperated with the â“peer pressure to give cars to 16-year-olds.â” When she got her own license a few decades ago, she says she shared a family car with several family members, had to wait her turn to drive. Today, she says, it's more and more typical for children to get their own car on their 16th birthday. It has become another way to keep up with the Joneses. Many families may consider it harmless. As a result of the new mores, there may be a higher percentage of very young and unexperienced drivers on Tennessee roads than ever before, though, and Brack says it has consequences. Of all age groups, Brack says, those age 16 to 25 are most likely to die in wrecks. Since 2000, just in Knoxville, that age group has given up 73 of its members to car crashes. Part of it's inexperience, she says. But also, â“the part of your brain that recognizes danger and consequences doesn't develop until the age of 23 or 24.â” She mentions other forms of impairment. She says she recently went to get her driver's license renewed. As she waited, she watched applicants ahead of her struggle with the vision test. â“They were letting people take the eye test three or four times,â” she says. â“If you can't see, I don't want you on the road.â” And, she adds, â“You'd be amazed to know how many people are driving around on revoked licenses.â”

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There was a time when fatal car accidents got much more attention in the news. Knoxville is famous in literature for one particular fatal car wreck in 1916. The one-car accident on Clinton Pike that killed 38-year-old James Agee, father of the boy of the same name who would write a book called A Death In the Family about the incident and its aftermath. Less than 12 hours after the accident, there was already six paragraphs about the wreck in print, prominently placed in the Knoxville Journal and Tribune. It even included educated speculation in print about the cause of the accident: â“It is probable that Mr. Agee was going at a fast speed,â” reported the morning Journal and Tribune, the morning after the evening accident. â“An examination failed to disclose any defect in the steering apparatus of the machine, and it is thought that the wheels must have struck a small stone, causing them to turn quickly, so as to run up the side of the embankment.... The car had turned over on its side, and underneath it, lying face towards the ground, was its lone passenger.â” There was also a public report from an impromptu medical examination: â“He either died of a broken neck or concussions received from a blow on the chin. Another theory as to how death came is that the weight of the car on the man under it was so heavy that he could not breathe.â” You never see that kind of detail anymore. People just lose control of their cars and die. But the automobile was still new in 1916, and the automobile wreck was still considered a freakish anomaly; there's almost a sense of wonder about the whole description. Though examination of the wreck was hardly thorough by modern standards, the details released that day surely had some cautionary value. Much more recently, in my youth, the paper always put notices of fatal car wrecks on the front page. There was a little black flag, and as I recall, a box of statistical information about fatal car wrecks in Knoxville to date this year versus last year. The idea, I guess, was that people would pay attention and be more careful. It faded away about 30 years ago. Maybe people were tired of it. When the elder James Agee's accident made the newspaper in 1916, there had only been about 25,000 automobile-accident fatalities in American history. Now there have been more than 3 million.

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It's not that we're not careful, as a society. We worry about bathrooms that don't seem clean. We worry whether someone dips a chip into some spinach dip after taking a bite out of it. If the safety seal on the Parmesan cheese has come loose, we'll take it back. You can't be too safe. Somehow we're confident about driving. We drive down Kingston Pike at 45 miles an hour; inches away to the left are hundreds of hundreds of tons of metal, hurtling in the opposite direction at 45. Hitting any one of them would be like running into an oak tree at 90; we would die. But we trust the other drivers not to cross the yellow line, even slightly, even when it curves. We've probably never met any of the drivers coming at us, and we can't even see their faces clearly. We don't know whether they're drunk, whether they have drivers' licenses, whether they're schizophrenic, whether they've been hoping that problem with the steering will just get better on its own; whether they're teenage car thieves on a joy ride, whether they're depressed and suicidal, or whether they've just noticed there's a hornet in their car. We trust them all with our lives. They're in cars, after all. They must be good drivers. We trust them all not to make the slight error of hand-eye coordination that would kill us. The variability of drivers and their circumstances is huge. Within humans are huge differences in experience, in ability, in temperament, in intelligence. A large part of the risk of bad car wrecks may be inherent in the idea of individual self-propelled vehicles.

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Brack sometimes sounds exasperated, talking about things drivers should know and do, but don't. Police departments keep doing what they can, but public education often seems to have little effect on behavior. Consider that for at least six years, several major institutions have published studies about the dangers of talking on cell phones while driving. The studies, examining everything from neurology to obstacle-course testing, to interviews with car-wreck victims, seem to leave little room for question. Drivers talking on cell phones aren't driving well. Several of these studies have been well-publicized, in newspapers and on mainstream TV news shows. A 2005 study showed that drivers talking on cell phones were four times as likely to be involved in an accident with injury, and cell-phone-related fatalities have been estimated at about 2,600 per year. Some of the fatalities have been local. More than one report has claimed the distraction of talking on a cell phone was the equivalent of driving while moderately drunk. Several municipalities in America and Europe have banned cell-phone driving as a public hazard. Everybody's heard all that by now, surely. But stand on a West Knoxville street corner at rush hour in the late afternoon, when the angle of the sun makes it easy to see drivers' faces, say, as they're turning left with the green light. While they're steering a ton or more of metal at 30 or 40 miles an hour into traffic on public streets, they're talking on their cell phones. At some corners, you can count them until you're tired. Right hand on the steering wheel, left hand, with cell phone, to the ear. One after another after another after another, like an Andy Warhol series of prints with only slight variations. They're all convinced that their cars, and whatever they choose to do in them, are safe. It's an American article of faith, unassailable by the timid nagging of science.

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Driving while intoxicated is obviously an important category, but there are others. Every day, people drive while angry, while sleepy, while distracted. They drive while old, and while very young. Sometimes, behind the wheel of a car, anger, or depression, or even elation can inspire you to push your foot to the floor. Such a simple gesture would be innocuous in any other context, unnoticed if you did it behind a desk, or in a restaurant. Advocates of gun control say guns are dangerous not because gun owners are bad and mean to do harm, but because a loaded gun empowers transient impulses: a flash of anger becomes a murder, one that may be instantly regretted by the murderer, who would perhaps not have made the same choice if he were carrying a Bowie knife. A car is a loaded gun. In fact, it has the ability to kill more people than any automatic weapon that's legal in the United States. Driving a car is like carrying a loaded assault rifle with you all the time.

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There's something about how cars change us when we get into them that has yet to be fully described and explained. It's almost as if we live in two parallel cultures, overlapping. Honk at somebody because they pull out in front of you, and they'll flip you the bird. They may even narrate the gesture. Even if they run a red light, and you honk and swerve, perhaps saving them the trouble of an accident, they'll show you the finger. But see the same person on a Gay Street sidewalk, or inside the mall, and you'll probably be cordial. I'm sorry. No, after you. And they'll laugh. Nobody is ever as big a jerk in person as they are behind the wheel of an automobile. Unfortunately for us, it's the one place it's most dangerous to be a jerk. A couple of years ago, a car crossed right in front of me on Cumberland Avenue, cutting me off, nearly causing a collision, and forcing me to wait through the long light on Henley. When the light turned green, I raced up alongside him and rolled down my window, ready to yell some insult. And I saw that the driver was a friend of mine. I knew him to be a friendly, good-hearted but dependably absent-minded fellow. He probably never noticed what he was doing. Cars arm us, make us warriors. We like cars that look angry and vengeful, cars called Viper. A recent TV commercial advertised a car as â“part street fighter, part jet fighter.â” Why an automobile needs to be any variety of â“fighterâ” isn't explained. But the idea appeals to the young male adult, the demographic most likely play video games in which the object is to smash into people and cars, to buy tickets to movies that feature elaborately heroic car wrecks, and to die in car wrecks themselves. Maybe it's all part of an elaborate fantasy. We've come to think of our cars as our armored opportunity to defy the world, show it how tough we are, maybe vent at strangers and get away with it. On our feet, shouting an insult at somebody and quickly running away, for example, could only be interpreted as a particularly demented sort of cowardice. But in the parallel culture of car drivers, shouting some unreturnable volley of slurs, or flipping a bird, then driving off, the hit-and-run insult, is somehow normal. Cars also seal us off. With the windows rolled up, away from neighbors, with a captive audience, cars may seem a tempting place to air grievances. There's no way to have an equitable debate in a car. Regardless of any other power dynamics in a relationship, in a car one person is in charge; the other is his helpless dependent, and potentially his victim. In newspaper accounts, there's never any mention of whether a driver is angry, or trying to impress someone, or trying to make a point with his car. He chose to show off a little, the sort of thing all young men are confident they can do and get away with.

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They rarely encounter any compelling evidence that they won't always get away safely. If, this weekend, the announcer at Neyland Stadium briefly interrupted the play-by-play to mention there was a sniper in the stadium who was going to start shooting at random, and was expected to kill 20 or so people before he ran out of ammo or was subdued, it's safe to say we'd all be pretty nervous about it. We don't feel the same about car wrecksâ"even though Tennessee statistics suggest that about 20 football fans who attend the homecoming game at Neyland Stadium this Saturday will die in car wrecks before the next homecoming game. Next year, there will be 20 more. And if they're a representative sample, more than 1,000 of them will be injured in a car wreck by next season. There's no other risk we're so mundane about. I had an inkling about it when I was in a dangerous accident about 10 years ago. On the interstate at rush hour, a double-trailer semi merged into my car, which went into a spin, smashed backwards into a concrete wall, and was totaled, damaged on all four sides. It seemed to me a spectacular crash. I emerged with nothing more serious than whiplash, and what I thought was a hell of a story. I half-expected it to be on the local news. (â“A Knoxville man barely survived a freak accident today....â”) It wasn't, of course. At a party that weekend, I expected to impress at least my friends and colleagues, but discovered that most of the people in the room had been in much more serious crashes than mine. Several even showed off scars from car wrecks. A sales rep in our office, a pretty young blonde woman who could have passed for vice-president of Chi O, hitched up her skirt a little to reveal jagged scars on her upper leg. She'd nearly been killed, too. She had to have multiple operations, and it still bothered her. Another guy, much younger than me, showed me stitches in his arm, from a car wreck. One had scars in his scalp that I'd never noticed. They'd never mentioned it before.

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We all hide the consequences of car wrecks, like the police who put a tarp over a car where somebody died. Instead of tarps, we use platitudes. â“He died doing what he enjoyed.â” â“He would have wanted to go out that way, in a blaze of glory.â” â“He packed more life into just 20 years than most people do in 70.â” I was about 20 when I first heard someone say that. It was about a contemporary who had cracked up on a one-vehicle car wreck on a residential road in West Knoxville. Sometimes what they mean is just that he liked to take physical risks, like driving fast, and that's what they mean by packing in more life. I've heard people say similar things at several other funerals for the young. It's almost as if it's a helpful conversation prompter they hand it out at funeral homes to fill the awkward silences. It's a platitude that makes kids feel better about one of their own dying so young and suddenly, that there's some cosmic equivalency in life. But maybe it's a dumb thing to say. He never got to be a dad, never had a job he was proud of, never saw Paris. He didn't live a very full life at all. There's another platitude, â“live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse.â” It's a cute old joke, of course, always announced with some bravado. People may know there's no truth in it. Old people's corpses often look better than young people's. The kind of fast living that leads to premature death does not tend to render beautiful corpses. I've known several dozen people who've died young. Few of them had open-casket ceremonies, probably for good reason. Many were cremations. I remember one who did have an open-casket ceremony, a friend who had died in a high-speed car wreck. They had to do a lot of stitching about the face. If they hadn't had his name on a sign in front of the receiving room, I would have thought I'd come to the wrong party. I wondered if his family thought he looked better than he did.

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A lot of people who've survived horrific accidents, or who have had loved ones killed suddenly, unexpectedly, often even randomly, are like veterans of the worst sorts of combat: they don't like to talk about it. It's understandable. Brack thinks it's good for people to know about the consequences of their actions. She'd like to see more people use public transportation, but admits that for many it's not an easy option. The Tennessee Strategic Highway Safety Plan, signed in August, intends to reduce the fatality rate by the end of 2008 by 10 percent, â“through education, enforcement, engineering, and emergency response....â” It's an ambitious goal, though there have been countless similar initiatives in the past; and if it succeeds, it will mean that Tennessee's death toll is just closer to U.S. standards. The next day, the woman in my neighborhood whose parked car the driver hit one moment before he died found herself stopping young drivers at random in front of her house, telling them to be careful. One looked alarmed, more at this unwelcome interruption in a happy routine than in any reality of risk. The day after the wreck, the familiar cars in our own driveway looked to me like rockets to hell. I did not get in a car all the next day. When I did drive, a necessary trip to the grocery, I saw a couple of teenage boys in a Jeep, veering diagonally across the parking lot, swerving around parked cars. They seemed happy, innocent, and invulnerable. They perhaps had never seen a headless man seated behind the steering wheel of his new car. But then, those who have can't quite figure out what to do with the image.

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All content © 2007 Metropulse .

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