Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A Newsworthy Fate

This entry is a guest posting by AAA Foundation research and education coordinator Bruce Hamilton, who shares his thoughts on the May 26 crash that killed recent Yale grad Marina Keegan on Cape Cod. Keegan and Hamilton both grew up in Wayland, Massachusetts.

By now, many people across the country have heard the name Marina Keegan. Her story as an aspiring journalist, killed in a traffic crash just one week after graduating from Yale and publishing her final piece in the Yale Daily News – in which she reminded her fellow students of their shared youth and limitless possibilities – has ignited the national media. Preliminary investigations have indicated that Marina’s boyfriend, who was driving, fell asleep at the wheel. Thankfully, he survived and escaped serious physical injury.

The Foundation has called drowsy driving one of the most significant and under-appreciated traffic safety concerns, and our research has estimated that roughly one-in-six fatal crashes involves a drowsy driver. Additionally, while nearly all (96%) drivers say they believe driving while drowsy is unacceptable, roughly one third (32%) admit having done so in the past month.

While crashes like Marina’s are of professional concern to me, this story actually caught my attention for a different reason. I didn’t come across the news of her death in the Washington Post, New York Times, or any of the other major outlets that covered it. Instead, I first read the story in the local newspaper serving Marina’s and my hometown of Wayland, MA. Before reading about Marina the playwright and journalist, I read about Marina the friend, sister, and daughter, and the girl who loved growing up next to my elementary school.

While I didn't know Marina personally, our town is small and I remember the family name. At dinner on the day I learned of her passing, I mentioned the story and the Wayland connection to some acquaintances. They'd heard about it, but they were unmoved. They reminded me that people die in car crashes all the time; that the national media will never report on most of them; that Marina's story was sad but not "special."

What a potent reminder of why I work in this field.

Traffic crashes leave empty chairs at dining room tables and moments of silence at graduations. Traffic injuries leave victims with lifelong challenges and obstacles, which, to be sure, they confront bravely, but which nobody deserves. Traffic crashes cause violent, preventable deaths.

Traffic crashes are newsworthy.

While I am pleased that Marina’s story has generated interest, I am concerned that some of the coverage has taken on an almost romantic tone while reflecting on fate and loss. The implication is that what is “newsworthy” is some imagined poetic connection between Marina’s youthful writings and untimely death, rather than the fact that her passing was violent and preventable. There has been little, if any, acknowledgment that “justice” for crash victims can come in the form of concerted efforts to prevent future fatalities, and that all of us have a responsibility to keep the roads safe for everybody. One article I read went so far as to say that the lesson learned from Marina’s story is that life and death are entirely beyond our control.

Implicit in the Foundation’s mission is the rejection of this very notion. We work every day to demonstrate that the causes and consequences of crashes can be studied and understood, and that the findings can be used to develop risk-management strategies with tangible, life-saving results. We can never “do enough” for those who have passed away, but until we finally confront the leading killer of young people, we will not be doing right by Marina and the 32,000 other Americans who will share her story this year.

4 comments:

  1. Excellent post. We tend to place too much emphasis on statistics, thinking those will change behavior. In reality, it's the personal stories that carry real meaning for people and are the best vehicles for behavior change.

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  2. Thank you for this compelling story. I am very sorry for Marina's friends and family. Drowsy driving is a huge issue that doesn't get much attention these days. Thank you for putting this into perspective and your outstanding work in building a safety-minded culture.

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  3. I would like to thank you for bringing this topic to the attention of those who read the article, and to the others who may be affected by its content. Marina Keegan was my little sister. Losing her is undoubtedly the most painful and difficult event I have ever had to endure.

    I believe you have brought to light a very real aspect the events surrounding my sisters death. While Marina's passing generated national media coverage and the attention of a number of news groups, I agree that the coverage was mainly focused on the poetic tragedy created by the combination of her untimely death and the content of her writings.

    I completely agree that the real tragedy sourrending my sisters death, what should actually be taken to heart by all readers... is that this event was not an unforeseeable act of God, and that it most likely could have been prevented.

    I believe that responsible drivers must take "drowsy-driving" as seriously as driving while under the influence of alcohol. While not technically illegal and also difficult for law-enforcement to enforce, responsible drivers must understand that being overtired or exhausted while behind the wheel can be just as fatal as driving while intoxicated.

    There is another aspect of the car crash that killed my sister that even less people know of. And I believe that this factor played just as large a role if not more so then did her boyfriends level of alertness.

    At the time of the crash my sister was asleep and fully reclined in the passenger seat. I never would have thought that being in the reclined position while wearing your seatbelt could be far more dangerous than not using a seatbelt at all .

    My sisters reclined position while her seatbelt was fastened was the reason that her boyfriend (the driver) was able to walk away, and my sister was pronounced dead on arrival.

    The major auto-manufacturers have known of this danger since the late 1980s. It was during that time that General Motors determined that passengers in the fully reclined position were at an enormously higher risk of injury and death during motor vehicle crashes, due to their bodies impacting the seatbelt with fatal force.

    General Motors collected enough data on this dangerous phenomenon in the 1980s to coin the term for it: "submarining".

    Prior to loosing my little sister, I never would've thought twice about reclining my seat while in a moving vehicle.

    I now strongly believe that just as "drowsy-driving" must be addressed in a more public way...during driver's ed & through Public Safety announcements...the increased danger and high risk of injury or death as a result of being fully reclined with your seatbelt fastened must also be brought to the publics attention.

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    1. Hi Trevor,

      Thank you very much for your comment and for sharing additional information about what contributed to the severity of this crash. You're absolutely right -- the issue about safety belts and reclined seats only surfaced in later articles, didn't receive broad coverage, and is something that many people likely haven't given much thought to. Thank you for bringing it to our attention.

      I continue to be deeply sorry for your immense loss and wish you and your family peace and comfort in the months and years ahead.

      Take care,
      Bruce Hamilton

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