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.