Avoidable tragedy: mourning a century of car-related deaths

Don Edwards was one of the most amazing people that I ever knew. He was the kind of guy who was better than his friends at everything he did. Funnier; better with computers; a better trumpet player; a better guitar player; a better basketball player. This, despite being born with a stump for a left hand. Anybody who did not realize how special he was would have after seeing how many of his friends and family held vigil in the hospital waiting room for the two weeks Don lay in a coma.

You cannot describe the wonder of someone’s life in an obituary. Trust me, I’ve tried enough times to know. “Don Edwards, 16, Computer Whiz, Mathematician,” barely scratched the surface of what Don was about. For now, it is enough for you to understand what Don became: one of 30 million who met their maker after an introduction from the automobile. Thrown from a jeep when the driver took a sharp turn too fast, Don left a legacy of a triumphant will and a snapped seatbelt.

Last Monday marked the 100th anniversary of the first death by car in North America. When H.H. Bliss stepped off a New York City streetcar into the path of an electric taxicab, go figure, he became a martyr before his time. Three newspapers carried the news of his death the next day and, in the 100 years since, proceeded to run the obituaries of 5 million Americans. Our nation has lost more people on the road than on the battlefield.

Travelling by car has become much safer since Ralph Nader wrote Unsafe at Any Speed, labeling General Motors responsible for the tendency of its Chevy Corvair to flip over and explode. Much safer, but automobile accidents still leave 47,000 dead in this country every year, the equivalent of U.S. fatalities during the 12-year Vietnam War. The joke about Ford standing for “Found On Road Dead” becomes less funny that way.

Cecy Krone lost her life to an automobile September 4 of this year. The popular and well-respected Marin County, California bicyclist was run over by a drunk driver who swerved to hit her. A week later, two days before the vigil candles burned all over North America for H.H. Bliss and those that came after, 500-600 cyclists gathered for a memorial ride up “Cecy’s Hill,” and to pay their respects. The name of Cecy Krone has become a rallying cry for Marin cyclists, who hope her death will finally shame motorists into “sharing the road,” wrote the Marin Independent Journal last Sunday.

Adrian Steinwedel knows what it means when cyclists rally. Her husband, Jeff, a respected figure in the cycling community, was riding his bike when a big rig struck and killed him in 1996. A memorial ride a few weeks later drew media attention to the case and the larger issue. This spring, cyclists appeared in the courtroom every day to let the judge know that the trial of the killer would not go unnoticed. On Friday, the judge finally sentenced trucker Jon Nisby to a full year in jail, and recommended a suspension of his driver’s license and a permanent revocation of his commercial license. That case was a rare one in that it saw a driver held accountable for the death of a bicyclist, let alone given the maximum possible sentence. But, as Adrian said in court last week, no amount of punishment can bring back what was lost on the road.

Don Edwards, H.H. Bliss, Cecy Krone, Jeff Steinwedel. These are just names to most people who will read this. Just four names out of 30 million. Put together, those 30 million are not even the strongest case one can make against driving. It is the one, though, that has touched the most lives in the most profound way.

Consider all 30 million of them before the next time you climb into your car, don’t wait for a pedestrian at the crosswalk or yell out your window at a cyclist struggling up a hill. College rules prevent students from burning candles. I wish I had lit one last Monday, anyway. But I did not, and all I have to give today is this request. As Adrian Steinwedel asked her husband’s killer in her closing words, please be more careful next time.

This is for H.H. Bliss, Cecy Krone and the 30 million in between. This is for the family of Jeff Steinwedel. This is for Don Edwards. Please keep it in mind next time you are behind the wheel.