Womeldorph: Car crashes are one of the leading causes of death, and nobody cares

Zane Womeldorph

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by the Collegian or its editorial board.

My first brush with automotive disaster came in the summer between my sophomore and junior years of high school. One of my best friends just got his license and I sat shotgun as we followed my older brother on a short straight-away of a mountain road near my house.

Like many 16-year-olds, our understanding of consequences didn’t last much longer than ten seconds into the future, and I laughed as my friend floored it. We passed my brother going probably 70 mph and met a curve that responsible people take at 25.

We were lucky in so many ways. We could have rolled. We could have shot off the steep drop on our right. There could have been a car coming in the opposite direction. Instead we ended up spinning around probably three times and lightly tapping into an embankment. The skid marks lasted for months.

Thankfully, my luck held that day and has held several times since. Unfortunately, I know too many people who weren’t so lucky.

Recently a friend from high school whom I played basketball with for three years and who was an absolute beast of a physical specimen – not to mention an incredibly kind person – was found, along with a passenger, flipped upside down in an iced-over stream.

A couple months before that I was delivering pizzas when our manager left on his only run for the night and never came back. Turns out he parked his car on the side of a dark county road, got out to check the address number on a mailbox and was struck and killed by a car.

A couple months before that another friend from high school’s mother was driving on a highway and stopped to help someone retrieve a bike that had fallen off the rack on their car. As she was getting back in her car she was also hit and killed.

Chances are, you also know someone who has died in a car accident. In 2011, automotive accidents were the leading cause of death for every age between 16 and 25. Since then traffic fatalities have risen significantly nationally, in Colorado and in Larimer county. Over 40,000 people died nation-wide last year in car crashes. In Colorado that number was over 600, the largest death toll since 2005 and an increase of 11 percent from 2015. In Larimer County, 48 people died last year, a significant uptick from 37 in 2015.

Many in law enforcement attribute this rise to distracted driving. “Ninety percent of crashes are a result of human error. That’s why we don’t call them accidents, we call them crashes,” Director of the Colorado Department of Transportation Shailen Bhatt told the Denver Post.

Other factors that attribute to fatalities are exactly the ones you’d think. Seatbelt use in the state, according to Bhatt, is only 84 percent. While it is illegal to drive without a seatbelt in Colorado, it is a secondary law, meaning that you cannot be pulled over simply for not wearing one but you can be ticketed for the infraction if you’ve already been pulled over for something else. Changing that law may have saved some of the 186 people killed in car accidents in our state last year who were not wearing seat belts.

A final factor is speed. Speed limits around the country have steadily risen in the past few decades thanks to the repeal of the National Maximum Speed Limit in 1987, a law that required states to keep speed limits at 65 mph in order to get federal highway funding. A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety determined that raising speed limits on highways around the country resulted in over 33,000 deaths from 1993 to 2013.

I drive like a grandpa. I am not ashamed of that fact whatsoever. People need to realize that the speed limit is a ceiling, not a floor. You’ve probably passed me on the highway, wondering why the hell I’m going ten under the speed limit. You may have been stuck behind me on a county road, roaring in frustration while you are penned in by the double yellow and my excessive caution.

But as anyone who has been in a car accident can attest, things can go from normal to potentially deadly in the blink of an eye. Driving is something we do everyday; it is as normal and banal an activity as there is. But it is dangerous and there is nothing wrong with defensive driving, both as a strategy to avoid anxiety and minimize the chances of crashing.

So, at the risk of sounding like a father berating his teenage children before they go out for the night, here is my driving credo:

Slow down; it’s better to arrive late than never. Do not tailgate; there are obvious reasons for this, but mostly it just makes you an asshole. Wear your seatbelt; it’s so easy and it doesn’t make you cool for not doing it. It makes you stupid.

And finally, keep your phone away from your face and your eyes on the road.

Zane can be reached at letters@collegian.com and online @zwomeldo