All the women in my family approach the delivery of bad news in the same way: subtly and with as little contextual information as possible. This approach is perhaps most generously employed by my mother who once left me at my high school with only a text message to “find an alternate way home” when my dad went to the hospital with chest pains. I didn’t find out he was there until several hours after the fact, when I finally called my mother and demanded to know what was going on.
“Don’t worry, sweetie,” she politely whispered into the phone, “Dad’s fine—we’re just at the hospital.” Everything was fine and, in similar situations over the years from pet illnesses to family injuries, I’ve realized I’ve been spared the details because I am the youngest, the baby, the one who needs to be taken care of. Because of this history of protection, I should not have been surprised when my older sister called me and used the same tactic. But I was. I was floored, actually; I experienced that kind of shock and awe where you literally feel yourself stop mid-stride on your way to your evening class on the history of early modern Europe. My sister let me drone on about school for about five minutes before I finally asked, “So how was your day?”
“It’s been OK,” she said, slightly hesitant, but calm as usual. “Have mom and dad talked you to today?” They hadn’t. “Oh,” she said, clearly more hesitant now. “So I guess you didn’t hear that Max got hit by a car today.”
Max is a Virginia State Trooper, but he is also my sister’s long-term boyfriend and my friend. Long before he entered my sister’s life in a romantic way, they were best friends, and I spent a lot of time with them as they made their way through college and, several years later, as I made my own way through college. They were the people who I had my first beer with, who I’ve endured family gatherings with, who I’ve Skyped with and texted while traveling the world. While we all knew that injury was a strong possibility in Max’s new line of work, near-death experiences were simply something we could not imagine. After overcoming the initial shock of the news and the fact that my sister waited more than six hours to tell me about Max’s accident, I finally pried out what had happened that day.
Max had pulled over a driver with expired tags on one of Virginia’s major roadways that Tuesday around 2 p.m. He stood on the driver’s side of the car, his back towards traffic, as he took the driver’s information. Several hundred feet down the road, an older driver had fallen asleep at the wheel while driving over 70 mph, causing him to drift over three lanes of traffic and smash into Max’s car. Unfortunately this also caused Max’s car to fly into the expired-tags vehicle and, in the process, hit Max as well. Not only was he hit, but the ricocheted vehicle had flung Max into the far-right lane of oncoming traffic. Still conscious but dazed, Max crawled back onto the side of the road where he spared himself from the possibility of being hit by oncoming cars. He was taken to the hospital and, to the doctor’s incredulity, only suffered from road rash and a bruised hip. As my dad would later note, it’s a miracle that Max was not more seriously injured; had the sleeping driver veered a few more feet to the left, Max would have likely suffered a direct impact, the implications of which are almost too hard to fathom.
Despite growing up in a military family and living all over the world, I have always considered the streets of northern Virginia my home. I have lived in three different homes there, attended three schools, and performed in countless recitals and concerts; in short, northern Virginia is where I truly feel that I grew up. But northern Virginia, like any area, has its pros and cons, and the biggest and probably most infuriating con of living there is the traffic. It seems that I cannot visit my parents without witnessing or hearing about an accident on the highway or major traffic delays. Any Virginia or D.C. resident can tell you that the traffic going in and out of the area plus the seemingly endless construction is an aneurysm-inducing nightmare, often resulting in hyper-aggressive and impatient drivers. On his or her own, one aggressive driver might not be so bad. But the mass of aggressive drivers that congregate on Virginia roads seems to produce a consistent recipe for disaster unique to the area.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. The traffic in the DMV-region (D.C., Maryland, Virginia, for you non-natives) has been consistently ranked the 8th worst traffic city in the country, since “drivers with a 30-minute commute can expect to spend up to 73 hours in traffic annually.” 73 hours. That’s a little over 3 days of sitting in your car in bumper-to-bumper traffic. In the most recent crash reports from the Virginia Highway Safety Office, statistics show that there were about 122,000 crashes in Virginia in 2013 with about 741 deaths. Moreover, almost half of those deaths were caused by speed-related accidents, resulting in an 8.1-percent increase from the previous year.
Statistics, however, can be iffy. In my research following Max’s accident, I found very little helpful information on speed-related accidents in northern Virginia and the information that does exist is either outdated or issued by an outside source such as “Dan’s Defensive Driving Company.” Furthermore, the majority of speed-related tips for safe driving is geared towards teens; a demographic certainly in need of safe driving tips, but not the only demographic for speed offenders. Even I, a self-proclaimed safe driver, have been lead-footed a few times while driving on Virginia roadways. The truth is that we all have preconceived ideas of who the “unsafe drivers” are; ideas which often seem to align with a certain age, race, or gender. But, surprisingly, the VHSO found no strong correlations between gender, age, race, or even weather conditions in relation to the number of accidents. For example, 58 percent of speeding accidents in Virginia in 2013 were caused by male driver. (Sorry ladies, but that means we’re at fault for the other 42 percent.) This means that an accident can happen at any time, to any individual, in any condition.
Accidents happen. It’s a common saying, and an accurate one at that. But accidents can also occur when we become distracted and careless, when we are confident that we are the safest or most capable driver on the road, or when we are in a hurry to get somewhere. No text message, traffic delay, or time crunch is worth someone’s life. If we are unfortunate enough to be involved in or cause an accident, that could mean the loss of someone’s brother, sister, friend, spouse, or child. Had my family lost Max, it would not have only affected my sister and me, but also Max’s friends, his parents, and co-workers. Although, much like the protective tactics employed by my female relatives, we often shield ourselves from the possibility that an accident could happen to or be caused by us, it is imperative that we become proactive in taking the necessary precautions to prevent an accident from occurring. This means following the rules of the road, learning to be more patient with surrounding drivers, taking public transportation when available to spare the stress of driving, and keeping our attention on the road at all times. The impact of an accident (forgive the pun) has such a wide range and can be prevented if we all drive safely and responsibly. Ultimately safe driving is more than a Virginia-specific or personal practice issue: It’s about keeping everyone safe and doing your part to ensure that both you and the drivers around you always get to the places and people that you love.
*The names in this article have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals involved.