"Speeding doesn't cause accidents," pronounced B's older son at the dinner table the other night, "distractions cause accidents." And he knows what he's talking about. Because he's 24.
I guess I don't have to tell you, he likes to speed, and has been tagged with two or three speeding tickets in his relatively short driving life. Every one of them, according to him, a terrible injustice. And in every case, as usual, the cops agreed to plead it down to a cellphone violation or seatbelt charge, so he wouldn't get any points.
One thing he knows is that the week before his high school graduation, a classmate of his lost control of his car out on the main road, less than a mile from our house. The boy ran into a utility pole and killed himself. I was recently reminded of that accident because I saw one of those flowered wreaths perched on the side of the road -- presumably to mark the anniversary of the boy's death.
What causes accidents? The National Motorists Association, an organization devoted to helping you beat your speeding tickets, agrees with B's son -- it's driver distraction, not speed. The lobbyists for the road construction industry commission studies "proving" that the problem is poor road maintenance. But according to most objective sources, while drivers tend to blame poor road conditions or else other people's mistakes for their accidents, the fact is that excessive speed or aggressive driver behavior is the primary cause in the majority of cases.
A few days ago I drove down to JFK airport to pick up B and her younger son, returning from San Francisco. I left early in the morning. I was on an older highway, where the speed limit is 55. I was doing 60. Most of the traffic passed me by.
There's a bridge over a reservoir that's undergoing construction, where the highway squeezes down to two lanes and the lanes are narrow with no shoulder. The speed limit on the bridge is posted at 40 mph. I was crossing the bridge at 50, when I saw a big SUV closing up behind me. Please wait, I pleaded silently, until we get off the bridge before you pass me. No chance. The SUV pulled up, tailed me for a few seconds, eased out to the passing lane. Then, as I cringed, he brushed by me only a couple of inches from the left side of my car.
As I approached the city, the SUVs passed me by in packs -- they were all going 15 mph over the speed limit, rushing off to do whatever these people were doing on Saturday morning.
The cars that bothered me the most were the ones that drifted over into my lane as they passed -- were they being aggressive, trying to run me off the road, or were they just oblivious, not knowing they were crowding me out? Either way, they forced me over to the right side of the road, my wheel edging the shoulder.
On my way down to the airport, I passed the site of a tragic accident that occurred at the end of April. A 45-year-old woman was driving a Honda Pilot, with seven people in the car -- her sister, two grandparents, and three girls, a 10-year-old, a 7-year old- and a 3-year old. It was on a Sunday afternoon. The weather was fine. The passengers were all wearing seatbelts.
The driver was traveling in the left-hand lane, and suddenly for some reason bounced up onto the center divider. The impact damaged her front left tire, causing the car to careen across three lanes of traffic. The Pilot went over a four-foot fence and plummeted into a ravine below. All seven people died.
I'm sure this woman was a very nice lady -- after all, she was carting her family around to wherever they wanted to go. But she was going too fast. The investigation concluded she was traveling in the passing lane at 68 or 69 mph, in a 50 mph zone. No doubt, with seven people in the car, she got distracted. And that section of the road is not in very good condition. (Duh . . . that's why the speed limit is 50.) But there's no room for error when you're doing 68 or 69 mph. And so, however nice a lady she was, she killed herself and six people in her family.
Why do people speed? A very few people are actually in a hurry. Commuters tend to speed. A lot of people will do anything to shave off 2 or 3 minutes from their 45-minute commute. Younger people speed because they think it's cool. A lot of people speed because they think they're better drivers than other people on the road, and so they feel it's okay for them to go fast. Speed limits are for suckers, not for them. SUV drivers speed because they think their big cars rule the road, and everyone should get out of their way, and besides even if they do crash they won't get hurt.
I guess there are a hundred reasons to speed. It doesn't really seem that dangerous. Men boast about their speed, brag about how fast they can make a trip. Women joke about their lead foot. There's something about being surrounded by 3000 or 4000 pounds of metal and plastic that makes you feel impervious to the laws of physics, that puts you in a safety bubble where you think nothing can go wrong.
And then there's the video game phenomenon. People race cars on the screen, make all kinds of amazing maneuvers, and nothing bad ever happens. So how is a car any different?
One survey reported in Police Chief Magazine showed that most people would support increasing the speed limit on the interstate from its current 65 mph. About 22% wanted to increase it to 70; and amazingly (to me at least) 43% said it should be raised to 75 mph.
Because after all, speed doesn't kill. It's the distractions that cause the accidents. Or the road conditions. Or whatever. It's always somebody else's fault.
And, you know, that's a gamble that most people win . . . until they don't.
P. S. Aside from speed, AAA has an article in its current Car & Driver magazine about the riskiest times to drive. What's the deadliest month? Hint: It does not involve snow or ice.