by Phyllis Marotta
Okay, I admit it: I’m a safety nerd. You know, the grandma who makes sure the kiddos are safely buckled into the correct carseat. The person who gives you the “buckle up” gesture at the red light when she sees you aren’t wearing your seatbelt. The one who reminds you to have a SOBER designated driver for the night. The woman who promotes the graduated drivers license law for teens, which gives them lots of supervised experience behind the wheel. The gal who dons a helmet when she gets on the back of a motorcycle. The one who tells you to put down the phone when you aren’t paying attention to the green turn arrow. So, was I born this way, or am I a product of my environment?
I am definitely a product of my environment. At one time, I was the teen who rolled a car on a country road because I was not experienced enough to know that if you hit the brakes on gravel, you’d lose control. I was also the woman who was always nodding off at the wheel because I didn’t know I had mild narcolepsy. I’m the driver who admits to having a lead foot--but I’m working on correcting that habit because I know speed kills.
Wearing a helmet did not come naturally to me--I loved feeling my hair blow in the wind! Child safety seats? C’mon, I was the little girl sitting on the tailgate of the family station wagon in the 1950s; my brothers thought it was great fun to give me a little shove and then yell at Dad to slow down so I could run and hop back on. Riding inside the car, my mom was my seatbelt, throwing out her arm to protect me when she slammed on the brakes. As for modern technology--weren’t cell phones invented to keep me alert, especially on a long trip?
So when did my habits and attitudes start changing? Forty years ago, a close friend fell asleep at the wheel, hit a culvert, and was killed. Nearly twenty years ago, some friends were hit by a drunk driver the weekend before their baby was due, killing their beautiful baby girl. Twelve years ago, a woman from our small town fell asleep and drove under a semi, killing herself and her two sons. Ten years ago, a friend and I were the first ones to discover a rollover crash, where I found the driver facedown in a ditch, ejected from his pickup and killed, and the area strewn with empty beer cans. Even after experiencing those tragedies, I wasn’t the safety advocate that I am today.
For the past 7 years, I have worked in KDOT’s Traffic Safety Section. Within the first month on the job, my son lost one of his friends due to driving drunk and not wearing a seatbelt. Just a couple of weeks later, a friend of mine driving a grain truck failed to stop at the stop sign at a rural intersection less than a mile from his home, was hit by another truck, was not wearing his seatbelt, and was killed. I have read too many fatal crash reports, and have studied enough stats to make my head spin.
I have worked with law enforcement officers, and have watched them detect and arrest drunk drivers. I have mourned the loss of a close friend who was the victim of a drunk driver. I have seen a friend loaded into an ambulance because he pulled out on his motorcycle in front of a pickup. I have seen many close calls where drivers were focusing on phones (or other distractions) instead of driving. I have pleaded with friends and family members, and argued with them about whether it should be their “choice” or the law to wear their seatbelts/helmets.
On the flip side, I have seen our adult seatbelt rate go from 68% to 83%. I’ve seen many life-saving improvements in our laws. I’ve seen children leave a parking lot more safely than they arrived, because parents were taught how to install car seats. I’ve heard stories from teens about surviving crashes because they made the choice to buckle up after going through the S.A.F.E. (Seatbelts Are For Everyone) program. I’ve seen drivers, including myself, change behaviors due to dangers that have been brought to our attention.
Sometimes I get discouraged with the ones who don’t get the message, but I’m still determined to try to “Put the Brakes on Fatalities” by reaching one person at a time!
Phyllis Marotta is in KDOT’s Transportation Safety and Technology Bureau