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UT: Peter Rowe

Posted on 03 August 2001 by Ron Cook

Seat belts aren’t optional if you really like living

September 21, 1999

Peter Rowe: Seat belts aren't an option if you really want to live‘Terrible accident.” My car radio spits out that phrase so often during the morning or evening commute, my attention passes over it like a speed bump.

The term’s vague. Unless you’re Monica Zech.

“Terrible accident,” a fireman told her after a recent smashup. “Pretty nasty. You don’t want to hear about it, do you?”

“Sure. Tell me.”

He did. Later, she told me. Now, I’ll tell you. First, though, a warning:

Zech works for Metro Networks, one of the companies that provide traffic reports to radio and TV stations. After 16 years on the beat, Zech has no truck with the song-of-the-open-road, drivers-wanted, driven-to-excitement hoo-ha. You know “Red Asphalt,” the blood-soaked film they show in driver’s ed? She’s seen worse, and not on a screen.

That evening, the fireman told Zech that seven adults had piled into a sport utility vehicle. Two people buckled their seat belts. Five did not.

Southbound on Highway 163, the driver veered and hit the divider rail. Three of the unbelted passengers spilled from the car. One man flew through the night air, across the divider, and slammed headfirst into a northbound BMW.

The windshield decapitated him.

“The two young women in that car were spattered with his blood,” Zech said.

That’s what “terrible accident” means.

Seeing too much

Two or three times a week, Zech speaks at schools, clubs, churches and businesses. Somewhere in these talks, she always pounds home a simple message — use your seat belt. If you have small kids, properly strap them into a securely fastened safety seat.

This no-kidding argument is supported by some you’re-kidding! numbers. Last year, traffic accidents killed about 42,000 Americans. Of those, 63 percent were not wearing seat belts.

“The majority would have survived if they had buckled up,” Zech said.

But what, you might wonder, does this have to do with you? Piloting the space shuttle, this is not. This is driving. Heck, even your friends and neighbors know how to parallel park and change lanes and safely plop a squirming kid into the back seat. No?

No. Buckle Up San Diego and the San Diego Safe Kids Coalition host occasional “child safety seat checkups” around the county. So far, trained volunteers have inspected 750 seats.

“Only six were correctly installed,” Zech said.

Zech loves her job, even though it often terrifies her. She’s seen men who, after an unplanned flight through a windshield, are paralyzed from the neck down. A teen-ager whose pals admiringly called him a “speed demon”; those demons caused him to roll a car, right off the Del Dios Highway and into an early grave. A car seat sprang loose in a crash, hurling its infant cargo onto the interstate. The tot never had a chance.

“The Highway Patrol, police, fire department — they’re frustrated,” Zech said. “They ask me, ‘When are people going to get the message?’ ”

I don’t know. Maybe the message is too vague?

Never happen

Zech has statistics. “The No. 1 cause of car accidents is speed.”

She has advice. Never drink and drive. Stay calm, even if some #%!$ cuts you off in traffic. Always wear a seat belt. Take your child’s safety seat to a free checkup. There’s one today outside the Oceanside Toys “R” Us, 2425 Vista Way, from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m..

The following two are scheduled for Oct. 16: Qualcomm Stadium parking lot, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; and Nov. 13, Toys “R” Us parking lot, 1240 W. Morena Blvd., 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

But she also has a sobering sense that many of us don’t realize that driving is literally a life-and-death enterprise. “The 42,000 people who were killed last year all left their homes thinking it could not happen to them,” Zech said. All 42,000 discovered the true meaning of “terrible accident.” Surely, there must be better ways to learn that lesson.

Peter Rowe’s column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He welcomes phone calls (619) 293-1227, faxes (619) 235-8916 and e-mail (peter.rowe@uniontrib.com).

(Reprinted with permission from Peter Rowe and the San Diego Union-Tribune)

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