The news hit like a punch to the gut: Two fatal vehicle crashes within about an hour of each other on Friday near our city. We were still reeling from another one a month ago that killed an 8-year-old boy east of town.
Then, over the weekend, there were more headlines: A string of fog-related crashes on the I-5 Ridge Route between here and Los Angeles and a bus driver arrested on suspicion of DUI after crashing in Fresno with 35 people on board.
What in the name of Henry Ford is going on?
Driving a vehicle is the most dangerous activity most of us do. The vast majority are not police officers or firefighters, who put their lives on the line for us every day. We don’t hang from tall buildings, we are not steel workers, loggers, roofers, airline pilots or commercial fishermen (identified as some of most dangerous jobs in the U.S.).
I spent my career in the newspaper business. The most danger I faced was a paper cut or the wrath of an editor. Until I got into a 3,000-pound vehicle to go chase a story, that is.
Accidents are the No. 3 cause of death in the U.S., after heart disease and cancer. The majority of those accidents are vehicle-related. Even more telling, road traffic accidents are the leading cause of death among Americans aged 10 to19 years old.
Most of us have either been in a traffic accident or know family or friends who have. Some of us have had a loved one die in such a crash.
My grandson is four; he loves anything with wheels, and his toy box is full of vehicles large and small.
When he turns 18, will he ever drive a car? Or will we all be traveling in self-drive vehicles? Will we be going to Los Angeles, Morro Bay or San Francisco mostly by train (high speed or highway speed)? Will Joaquin have to go to Malibu Grand Prix to get his behind-the-wheel thrills?
I don’t have those answers yet, but I don’t mind telling you I am frightened for that future. Especially if Californians continue to drive too fast for the conditions. If we blow through stop signs at rural intersections. If we don’t strap on our protective seat belts. If we don’t keep our vehicles maintained. If we try to drive around the arms at railroad crossings. If road conditions don’t keep up with the number of vehicles on the roads.
Worst of all, if we drive while impaired on alcohol or drugs or distracted by our electronic devices.
I recently purchased a newer-model vehicle, and I can now answer my telephone by a button on the steering wheel. I can talk while both hands are firmly grasping the wheel. But as much as I love that feature, I also understand that chatting on the phone makes me less focused on my task at hand, which is driving.
In the two accidents last Friday, one was caused by a speeding driver crashing into a big-rig truck that was stopped at a rural intersection. The other, also in a rural intersection, was caused when a driver made a u-turn in front of an oncoming car.
Those are avoidable accidents, of the type that self-drive vehicles should be programmed to eliminate. Many of us, however, do not wish to give up our rights to drive. To do so, we argue, takes away our independence and control.
But if self-drive vehicles could cut the number of traffic crashes by half or more, shouldn’t that change our minds. Shouldn’t the safety of our families become more important than our independence?
In the Western U.S., we are a car culture. Other parts of the U.S. (mostly big cities) and elsewhere in the world are more comfortable depending on public transportation to get around. High-speed rail has been common for many years in Europe and Asia. But for many in California, it is a hard sell.
We have some tough questions in front of us. Do we continue our love for the motorized vehicle? Do we get tougher on driver training and traffic regulations? Do we take away driving privileges for anyone caught with someone in the car not belted in?
I keep going back to last weekend and last month. Three deaths near our city. Vehicle deaths. Preventable deaths.
Y’all be careful out there. Obey the traffic laws and be sure to buckle up. Your family’s lives — and my family’s — might be at stake.
(Longtime Selma resident Ken Robison is a retired newspaper reporter, editor, columnist and photographer. Selma Stories runs regularly in The Enterprise.)