New York is a media kind of town, so it’s right and fitting that so much attention has been paid to the untimely, violent death of the veteran 60 Minutes correspondent, Bob Simon, killed Wednesday night when the black Lincoln Town Car in which he was riding plowed into the back of a car stopped at a light at Manhattan’s 30th Street and 12th Avenue, before crashing into a traffic divider and coming to rest.
Much has been made of Simon’s fearlessness as a reporter -- to name a few examples, he was aboard one of the last helicopters out when Saigon fell; he also spent 40 days in an Iraqi prison after being captured on the ground while covering the 1991 Gulf War, all on his way to winning 23 Emmy awards. His fellow journalists have also remembered at length his other fine qualities -- as a journalist, father and person. And so should they salute the man: Simon’s loss will be keenly felt.
Yet, there is another part of the story about this exemplary journalist’s life and its sudden, grisly end that has emerged and with all respect to the man and his memory, it is this aspect upon which we should also now focus: according to New York City police, Simon wasn’t wearing his seatbelt. Given that the driver of the ill-fated livery car survived this horrific incident, it is not unreasonable to suppose that Simon might, too, have lived had he only buckled up. Certainly, the odds of his survival would have improved dramatically.
So a key question to ask at a time like this is, what is it about getting in a taxi, limo or bus – or just getting into any back seat -- that makes so many people think the laws of physics have been suspended? Statistically the front passenger seat of a vehicle is in the most dangerous place in a collision like this. Yet as proven in the 1997 deaths of Princess Diana and her companion, Dodi Fayed, seat belts – or lack thereof -- change everything. The front-seat occupant of the bruiser S-Class Mercedes in which rear-seat passengers Diana and Dodi perished was the only person in the big Benz wearing a seatbelt, and the only one who lived. This was not a coincidence. As the saying used to go, seat belts save lives.
The passing of Diana, an international celebrity of the very first order, resulted in an outpouring of tears, tribute, speculation and condemnation (concerning the paparazzi who were chasing the couple,) the likes of which the world has rarely seen. Yet in that case, what could have been a major teaching moment was lost, drowned out by grief and the cacophonous side issues. And the lesson that was lost was this: It doesn’t matter how rich or royal you are, or how strong, heavy or fancy your car is, you never want to go flying when your vehicle’s motion is cut short violently. Why people routinely assume that they are perfectly safe in the hands of a professional driver, much less in the care of a cabbie of unproven skill and sobriety, boggles the imagination. Yet I see it every day, this idea among back seat passengers that they don’t need to buckle up. As if getting thrown into the roof or the back of the front seat occupants’ heads is so much better than being thrown through a windscreen (which also might happen to untethered backseat passengers in a truly violent accident.)
As someone whose life was saved many years ago in a mighty, high-speed car wreck by the set of three-point seatbelts I’d installed in my 1967 MGB only two weekends previous, I continue to always wear seat belts and especially when I’m riding in a taxi or airport shuttle. Accidents happen and I don’t want to die in one and I don’t want you to die in one, either. Come for a ride in the backseat of my car and I will make you belt up whether you like it or not. And I mean it when I say, Bob Simon was an extraordinary man and a great reporter who risked his life to help get the story out. But when he failed to wear his seat belts, he took a foolish, unnecessary risk for absolutely no benefit. Let us hope that one part of his legacy will be reminding people to strap in – always.