Young drivers can learn from accidents

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 20, 2003

"There's been a bad wreck…."

It's not the kind of phone call anyone wants to receive at 3:30 a.m., much less a parent whose two oldest sons are in Atlanta on a church trip…. I felt a wave of dread

and panic build. Then I recognized the voice. It was one of our newspaper carriers, a good source who always helps out the newsroom when she spots a possible story.

At first I felt absolute joy and relief wash over me. It wasn't my sons, it wasn't my grief I'd have to face.

And then shame joined in. It may not have been my grief, but it would belong to someone. It's hard to celebrate your own good fortune when it means that bad things are happening to other people.

The adrenaline rush I'd gotten from that first panic destroyed any possibility of getting back to sleep, so I headed out to the wreck site. I have mixed feelings about this, as a mother, a journalist, a Christian. Sometimes I feel like a vulture, taking my photographs from the side of the road while First Responders bustle in and save lives. Sometimes I feel like one of their helpers. Back in Tennessee, my pitiful six years of Spanish lessons were far more than any of the local law enforcement officers had, and I was usually called on for some rudimentary translation. As a former office administrator for the local helpline organization, I knew many outlets for aid to offer motorists stranded after the accident. Once I even arranged room and board for a trailer full of horses after the truck pulling the trailer broke down on Monteagle Mountain.

But I've had people ask me many times, what good does it do, taking pictures of wrecked cars and broken lives.

I can tell you what those photographs and stories can do. They can save lives. I keep many of the worst photos in a scrapbook. Gruesome? Probably, but I have a son who just turned 13 Thursday and is already planning for when he gets his driver's license. Three sons, three potentials for tragedy. I can't protect them from everything, but I can arm them with education when they venture out on the road. Before any of them drive, they will have to study the scrapbook and figure out what went wrong-- or right - in each wreck. Was alcohol involved? Were they out too late, driving too fast, talking on a cell phone? One of the hardest lessons to teach them will be that sometimes it is truly and accident, with no cause, no fault, just a sad combination of circumstances.

The lesson I could have taught them this week is, beyond the shadow of a doubt - "Buckle up!" Covering four wrecks, at least four people survived with no major injuries. If they had not been wearing their seatbelts, I doubt they would have walked again, much less walked away from the accident scene.

Look at a wreck photograph in the paper and note the destruction - the crushed cabs, the demolished front ends, the twisted frames. Read in the caption that the victim survived because he was wearing a seat belt, and I guarantee it will drive the lesson home.

So while I'll always have mixed feelings about covering wrecks, it is done for a purpose. If even one picture I take makes just one person buckle their seat belt, it will be worth it.