[OPINION] Better late, than dead on time

In 1996, I was widowed by a car accident in which there were three fatalities. My eldest son was 21 months old and I was eight weeks pregnant. Two families lost a dad and one woman lost her fiancé. All our plans, our normalcy, our futures fractured and in many ways cut apart. Parents had to bury their adult sons. A fledgling IT company lost three of its six directors. The impact was enormous for all of us. There was no third party involved and it was deemed a natural “act of God” by the Road Accident Fund. The death certificates read: Cause of death - unnatural.

It took a while to accept this fate. The lessons learnt have been enormous. Accidents happen but they are not natural. They are inevitable when in the hands of ordinary people, and sometimes avoidable when in the hands of ordinary people. Those who are exposed are the drivers themselves, their passengers and often random people getting on with their lives and car rides. Some drivers embark on trips, long and short, when they are tired, they exceed the speed levels and legal alcohol levels, and they are careless with traffic regulations, becoming a law unto themselves from the driver’s seat. I can’t guess what happened during that 1996 accident but I do know speed and alcohol were not involved. It was nearly time to rotate drivers so, if I have to guess, there was tiredness. The road was pitch dark and numerous accidents had happened at this particular slow curve in the road.

Speed doesn’t kill, speedsters do! I don’t always follow the speed limits; I still have to pay speeding fines. I used to justify speeding with a busy schedule, feeling guilty about my children standing around because I am late and having lots to do and many places to be, sometimes at opposite ends of town. After witnessing an accident scene this holiday, I am determined to improve my driving habits, planning my trips and schedule to accommodate being more responsible on the road. My cellphone is also going to be put in the boot.

We were on our way from a lovely school holiday, a beautiful and scenic drive our family loves and looks forward to, coming or going to George. We noticed a number of emergency vehicles speeding and rushing on the road, from behind and ahead of us.

Much further down the road, we were stopped at a temporary lane closure where traffic in both directions was diverted through one way. The road glistened with shards of glass and strips of tyres. Ahead of us were two traffic department cars which were involved in this accident; both their boots were bashed in.

We looked to the right and saw a little red car which had obviously rolled a number of times as the back windscreen was missing and the car was mangled. The passenger seat was punctured by the left front side of the car, so one can only assume the passenger had not survived this crash. Behind the driver’s seat sat a man, who did not look hurt but who was stuck in the car and in shock, gently holding onto the shoulders of the injured young driver. Next to him was a middle-aged woman, from the look on her face she could have been the driver’s mother. She was immobilised with a neck brace but her eyes were helplessly, hopefully and lovingly placed on the driver, tunnel-visioned. It was a look willing her to keep breathing and fighting for her life. The young lady driver was trapped in her seat by the steering wheel and part of the car. The paramedics were slowly working with her. She stared and blinked slowly, her head facing the roof of the car, hands to her sides and slow seizure-like movements. It was hard to see. It looked and felt like death was imminent; she was calm. The imagery is cast in stone and my only assistance is to be more disciplined on the road.

This morning, I heard about an unlicensed driver under the age of 21 speeding on a highway, overtaking seven cars at a time and whizzing by someone who was overtaking legally. A driver called the police who arrested this young man further along the route. There were four children in the car with him. Which parent lets their unlicensed son drive a three-ton sports car, with four under-aged passengers? Who knows what the outcome would have been if he had hit someone or been hit by someone. After a similar experience, being in an enormous car like that it is possible; he would be safer than anyone he might hit. It is irresponsible and one of those lessons one learns with hindsight.

In South Africa, we are finally becoming more sensible about driving under the influence of alcohol. A lot of our friends use cabs and the young people who visit our home don’t drink and drive. They club together and use a taxi.
After millions of repeats, our children are always buckled up; finally, it’s not even a discussion anymore. If you’re in the car, we hear the click before anyone can ask questions about where we are off to or what radio station they will argue about. Sadly, doing the right thing doesn’t guarantee your safety on the road. We must still do it. Some carefree or careless driver can easily change your life forever through irresponsibility and a lacklustre approach to rules and regulations on the road.

If we keep raising awareness about the responsibility of driving, being in charge of your car, focusing on the road and the pedestrians and drivers around ourselves it has to matter. Mostly personal stories and witnessing tragedy can make the difference in behaviour but the shock value is what we want to avoid. It should just become common sense.

During pre-natal classes, the instructor spoke to us about the importance of using a car seat from baby’s birth until at least five-years-old. Then booster seats with safety belts until they are old enough to buckle themselves in. We had to put our baby in the car seat, strapped up safely from the departure from the hospital. She was clear, if your child is not buckled up and dies in a car accident, you are personally responsible. I cannot imagine the pain of living with that. I do know the pain of having someone die in a car accident that could have been avoided.

There are a number of important lessons worth remembering: always buckle up; focus on the road; no phone call or text is more important than your or your neighbour’s life, and planning your trips to give you sufficient time for unexpected and known busy roads. Courtesy is an unspoken rule on the road. No, taxis are not all menaces. No, sports car drivers are not all arrogant and nasty. No, the elderly are not all a risk on the road. No, learner drivers don’t have anywhere else to learn how to drive but on the road and in traffic. No, road rage and shortcuts are seldom the best reply. No, it’s not cute and cosy to hold your child on your lap for comfort or to pacify them, stop your car in a safe place and do that. No, driving with an open window with your cute puppy dog on your driving lap, wind in its hair is against the rules too. I have also had to teach my children that passing me water bottles, half-eaten sandwiches and used tissues while I am driving is not ok, unless they don’t have hands to hold onto these items until they find a bin! Now we rather have some of our best conversations in the car. That is free and can be done with both hands on the steering wheel.

A seminar leader once told us that when you realise you are stuck in traffic, be there. You can’t do anything about it, hooting, pushing the cars ahead to move faster, and causing further frustration by trying to nip into any little gap will not speed up the process. Patience is a virtue, turn up the music and take the consequences of being late. Better late than dead on time, they say and it must be true!

Lisa Joshua Sonn is a social activist. Follow her on Twitter: @annalisasonn