Dear Tom and Ray:
About a year and a half ago, someone in a Chevy S-10 pickup truck slammed into the back of my Toyota Camry at 70 mph. I was at a complete stop on the highway behind a long line of vehicles that had stopped during rush hour. The impact of the crash sent my car smashing into two other vehicles ahead of me. I suffered double whiplash, and my car was destroyed. The on-scene trooper estimated that the guy who rear-ended me was going at "full highway speed." There were no brake marks on the highway. No one can explain why he did not stop. Was he blinded by the sun? Talking on his cell phone? Drunk? I don't know. Authorities said my small son likely would have been killed had he been sitting in his back-seat child safety seat that day. Thank God he was home. The EMTs and ER doctors and nurses were amazed that I was not more seriously injured. I have a few questions on post-crash driving: How do I overcome my fear that someone will once again slam into me at a high rate of speed? My family has struggled with my driving fears since the crash. Of course, I've changed how I drive, too. I slow down well in advance and leave plenty of space between the vehicle ahead of me and my car. However, motorists around me constantly ride dangerously close to my rear bumper at high speeds in dense traffic and immediately fill the "safety bubble" space around my car. I try to stay in the slow lane, but that does not deter aggressive drivers from looming up behind me so closely that all I can see are their faces in my rearview mirror. I've become so frustrated that I've posted a bumper sticker on my car that reads, "Back Off Buckaroo, and just pass me!" -- Deborah
TOM: Well, I like the bumper-sticker idea, Deborah. But maybe you should up the ante a little bit. Get one that reads: "Keep Back 300 Feet. TNT on board."
RAY: I think you're doing the right things, Deborah. But I worry that you're paying so much attention to the people behind you that you might be distracting yourself from the greater danger: what's happening in front of you. And as a driver, that's where your focus should be.
TOM: You were obviously traumatized by being rear-ended. But statistically, you're unlikely to have the same kind of accident next time.
RAY: Right. Look at the bright side. Think of all the other kinds of accidents you could have. You could rear-end the car in front of you. You could be hit from the side. You could be hit in an offset frontal crash. You could drive off the road, hit a tree or roll over. Am I helping to get your mind off getting rear-ended again? Good. I thought so.
TOM: We don't want to minimize the seriousness of this. But it's true that there's only so much you can do. And obsessing about your last accident might distract you from preventing your next one.
RAY: So, here are our practical suggestions, Deborah. First, drive a particularly safe car. That'll give you some peace of mind. If you go to www.nhtsa.gov, you can look up the government crash-test results. Get a car that tests well in all kinds of crashes. We also recommend lots of air bags, anti-lock braking system and vehicle stability control.
TOM: Then, when you're driving, pay attention to what's happening in front of you, and slow down good and early. That will keep you from surprising a driver behind you. You can also pump the brakes gently as you slow down, as a flashing brake light will help get the attention of someone whose mind is elsewhere.
RAY: However, if his EYES are elsewhere, like on dialing his cell phone, trying to program a complicated navigation system or trying to spread mustard on a foot-long Polish sausage, there's not much you can do. So you'll want to encourage the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and your state legislature to ban cell-phone use while driving, enforce drunk-driving and tailgating laws, and move to limit other, new distractions, like TVs in cars, navigation systems you can program while in motion and dumb, screen-based controls that force the driver to take his eyes off the road (hello, BMW).
TOM: And then try to relax. It really is extremely unlikely that you'll ever have that exact same kind of bad luck again. You're obviously a careful driver. And if you relax, you'll be an even better driver.