Saturday, April 14, 2007

Not just a good idea -- it's the law.

In the summer of 1977, my parents' car was rear-ended on a suburban street in Connecticut. Fortunately for everyone involved, the accident happened at low speed. However, not only were my parents not wearing their seat belts, but my father, whose war against the mechanical world was lifelong and unrelenting, had for some reason removed the front-seat headrests. Both of my parents ended up with classic whiplash injuries, and my mother had pain in her back and neck for months. The other driver, also unbelted, was painfully banged up when he collided with his dashboard.

A bit less than a year later, a couple of guys from my dorm were in a car accident in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The driver, who had worn his seat belt, was unhurt. The unbelted passenger had the presence of mind to wedge his leg against the dash at the moment of impact, which saved his head and face. Of course, it didn’t do much good for his leg, which broke in several places. While his friends had fun at the beach that summer, he sat around in a cast instead.

In 1984, an affable fortyish engineer in my department walked into the office a bit stiffly one morning. The previous evening, he’d been driving through an intersection in a Boston suburb when another driver had run a light and smacked into his car. The seat belt restrained the engineer as he flew forward in his seat, leaving a bruise that ran from left shoulder to right hip. But my co-worker was in reasonably good humor about the whole thing; a bruised torso was a lot less of an inconvenience than a fractured skull would have been.

A few days before Christmas that same year, my seat belt kept me from bouncing around the inside of my car when a careless driver cut in front of me on the Masspike, the car ahead of him had to brake for traffic, and when I slammed on my own brakes to avoid what would have been a hard rear-end collision, my own subcompact whirled around several times in the left lane and then flew off the road and onto the median. My only injury was the bloody scratch I got on my thumb when, pumped with post-spinout adrenaline, I ripped the keys out of the ignition. With the help of the tow truck that pulled me out of the mud, I got home a bit late and under my own power, rather than as the worse-for-wear guest of a Sturbridge-area ambulance service.

And, several years ago, my father-in-law and nephew, securely belted into the front seat of my father-in-law’s beloved old Chevy, completely escaped injury when a distracted driver ran into them in suburban Indianapolis.

Astute readers by now have figured out that this post was inspired by what happened to Governor Jon S. Corzine of New Jersey on Thursday night. My personal hope is that Gov. Corzine recovers swiftly and completely from his injuries. I’d wish him the same even if he weren’t a member of the political party for which I normally cast my votes. But I suspect that the guy is a real piece of work to have for a boss. You have to wonder about someone – even a successful politician – who lives with such an illusion of control that he not only doesn’t normally comply with his own state’s seat belt laws, but has been known to chew out the state trooper on his guard detail for gently suggesting that he buckle up.

This is past being a mere technicality of law in New Jersey, where seat belt scofflaws are subject to a $20 fine. The problem is that if you’re driving or riding around unbuckled when your car has a close encounter with another solid object, you’re going to have to answer to a higher power. You know which one I mean – it’s the one normally expressed as F = ma. What you want to do is prevent your m from undergoing a lot of a, because that great big F on the left side of the equation is not your friend, no matter by how much you outrank the state trooper sitting beside you in the vehicle.

An accident of that severity is every driver’s nightmare, and no one “deserves” to be severely injured because of willful carelessness, but I think that an example still needs to be made of Gov. Corzine, and the suggestion that he be subjected to the customary fine doesn’t go far enough. I think he should be sentenced to a very specific kind of community service, preferably to be served as soon as he’s sufficiently recovered to speak in front of a camera, but well before he’s released from the hospital. And, it should go something like this:

I’m Governor Jon S. Corzine of New Jersey, and I’m here to tell you to wear your seat belt. I didn’t wear mine, and now I’m in the hospital recovering from multiple internal injuries and at least sixteen broken bones. And I was lucky, because when the accident happened, I had an entourage of police officers who were all trained in advanced first aid and were able to get an ambulance to the scene right away. If I’d been driving alone, as many of you frequently do, I might have bled to death before help reached me.

I’m a tough old ex-Marine, a wealthy businessman, and an elected official with a lot of clout. I’m about as powerful a man as you’ll find in politics. But I made a mistake that is completely beyond my power to take back, and it was worse than just violating the New Jersey seat belt law. That alone will get you a $20 fine, and some embarrassment if you’re a public figure. But I scoffed at the laws of physics, and now it’ll take months of therapy before I can walk without crutches. I scared my kids half to death. And I’ll probably have to live with some physical effects of this accident for the rest of my life.

One of the people in the car with me was only slightly injured, and the other was completely unhurt. Don’t do what I did – do what they did. Buckle up.

He’d save some lives, for sure. At a time when we need political figures to bring us back to a reality-based world, things don’t get much more reality-based than this.

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