My son Scott was 17 years old when he was killed in a car accident. Two other boys were in the car. They were also killed. Scott was the driver. The audience for this article is high school students. The purpose of this article is to describe some lessons that I hope you learn from this accident. I hope you will not learn these lessons the hard way like Scott did. I hope that you will realize that a car driven at high speed by an inexperienced driver is a lethal weapon. The theme of this article is that you can't beat the laws of physics. If you drive too fast and get in serious trouble, your reaction time may be too slow to deal with the emergency. You will need more time than you have, and there is nothing you can do to slow time down.
The accident happened shortly after midnight on May 6, 1995. The three boys were returning from a party. Scott was driving on a well-paved secondary road. The lighting is adequate, and the road was dry that night. Skid marks on the road show that Scott was a few inches to the left of the center lane. Unfortunately, a car was coming towards him. Scott needed to move slightly to the right. The reconstruction of the accident shows that Scott was driving approximately 90 mph. The speed limit on this road is 45 mph. No one will ever know why he was driving so recklessly. An experienced driver would have known not to slam on the brakes, and not to turn too hard to the right. At 90 mph a course correction of a few inches can be made by moving the steering wheel ever so slightly to the right, and then very quickly back again. But Scott was not an experienced driver; he had been driving solo for only six months. 90 mph is approximately 130 feet per second. Imagine going 130 feet in one second. That's the distance of a football field in just over 2 seconds. The utility poles on the right-hand-side of the road where the accident occurred are spaced approximately 130 feet apart. These poles were flying by at one per second! Next time you're in a car, take a look at the utility poles going by. Imagine a situation where the poles go by one per second. Now imagine that you are driving that fast, you get in trouble, you lose control of the car, and you are heading toward the utility poles.
Let's assume Scott's reaction time was one quarter of a second at the time of the accident. Now let's start a clock at the instant Scott saw the on-coming car. Scott's reaction was to hit the brakes and turn to the right. One quarter-second elapsed. 130 feet per second is approximately 30 feet per quarter-second. The car traveled 30 feet, toward the side of the road. Scott now realized he turned too hard to the right and tried to correct. The second quarter-second elapsed. The car has now traveled 60 feet. The car glanced off one utility pole, and slid on grass toward the next utility pole. The third quarter-second elapsed. The car was out of control, skidding on grass. Total panic. No time! Screaming. The fourth quarter-second elapsed. Impact with the pole. Three boys are dead. The car slid into the pole sideways. The point of impact was between the front and rear seats. The car was bisected. The front and rear halves of the car proceeded for several feet beyond the pole. Try to image the force required to rip a car into two pieces. Energy is conserved, and there is a lot of energy in a car going 90 mph!
Scott was driving my car that night, a 1994 Toyota Camry. Scott had his own car, a 1987 Toyota Cressida. The Cressida has rear-wheel drive; the Camry has front-wheel drive. Scott had driven the Cressida solo for six months; he had driven the Camry only a few times.
The Camry had dual air bags. They did not deploy. The impact was from the side, and these air bags were not designed to deploy from a side impact. All three boys were wearing seat belts. Seat belts and air bags are designed to offer a certain level of protection. In this case not nearly enough.
Scott had a radar detector in his car. I believe that people own radar detectors for only one reason - to minimize the chance they will get caught speeding. Scott transferred his radar detector from his car to mine that night.
If you decide to drive recklessly, please drive alone! How I wish Scott had been driving alone that night! Don't ride with someone who is likely to drive recklessly. If you are in the car and the driver is driving recklessly, do whatever it takes to get him or her to stop. If the driver will not listen to you, tell him or her that you're getting car sick and are going to throw up all over the place. Life is unfair. Scott deserved to be punished for speeding that night. For example, he deserved a fine, points on his license, and a temporary suspension of his license. Scott did not deserve to die for driving recklessly.
Please drive safely.
K. Jeffrey Johnson
You can send email to K. Jeffrey at: [email protected]
anniversary date 05-22-95
email update 11-29-08
date of post 04-12-97