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Soapbox Column: Anatomy of a car crash

A quick road safety lesson
Matthew Thomas
Soapbox 0043, 1999-07-11

It was a typical mid-winter's day in the northern South Island, I suppose: a heavy frost overnight, and a cold morning, sunny with a few specks of cloud. And the westernmost part of State Highway 63 is a typical South Island highway -- winding its way around hills as it follows the Buller River from St Arnaud to Kawatiri Junction. We were heading along this highway at about eleven o'clock this morning, going home to Nelson from Rotoiti Lodge near St Arnaud, when it happened.

It's not exactly rare for my mother to exclaim at oncoming traffic when my father is driving, even when said traffic doesn't actually pose much of a threat. So when my mother cried out this time, it was a moment or two before my sisters and I looked up to see what the fuss was.

When we did look up, we saw that a sports utility approaching us had begun weaving wildly from one side of the road to the other, on what we realized must be a patch of black ice.

My father brought our van to a stop, steering it slightly off the road towards the riverbank. There was no screaming or shouting, there wasn't time. We just watched in silence as the ute half-slid, half-drove towards us, on a gentle up-hill slope, and crossed into our lane.

It would be all too easy, I guess, to think of it as a matter of luck. If either they or we had been a couple of seconds earlier, or later, the ute would probably have hit our van, pushing us off the road and quite possibly down the riverbank. But as it happened, the ute spun back into its lane as it passed us, missing the van by a couple of metres.

Another ten metres or so up the road, the ute swung back into our lane again, a bit harder this time, and began facing towards the river. One or two of the wheels evidently found traction, and, seemingly in slow motion, the ute rolled elegantly onto its roof, coming to rest squarely in the middle of the road. There was a crunching sound as the windscreen broke, and the front of the roof caved in slightly. Then -- for a brief moment, before my sisters started screaming -- silence.

My father and I scrambled out of the van, and ran up the road to the ute. `Everyone ok?' I yelled. There was a muffled shout in response. We opened the doors -- it took me a second or two to realize that when a door is upside down, the door-handle is upside down too. Eventually, out climbed one, two, three, four, five people. All of them looked a bit shocked. They sported the occasional graze, the driver's glasses were broken, and his wife had a bleeding hand, cut from the windscreen. But that was it.

Things started happening without much drama after that. Blankets and jackets were doled out to surround the shaking family. The phone in the crashed ute didn't work, and a truck driver who arrived on the scene some twenty minutes later found that the surrounding hills were stopping his radio from transmitting back to base. Eventually a farmer arrived, and left again to call a tow-truck on his home phone. And those of us who weren't stationed a few hundred metres down the road in either direction, to sl

The family were from Masterton, and had been heading for Picton to take the ferry home after a holiday in the South Island. They probably missed the ferry today, but I'm sure they would have counted that as a minor thing compared to the fact that they escaped unhurt.

Though it was 11 am, the sun hadn't reached this part of the road yet, as it was in the shadow of a hill. The ice made the road so slippery that I found it nearly impossible to walk on, but from a driver's point of view it looked perfectly normal. The truck I mentioned, the one which arrived soon after the accident, happened to be a grit truck -- spreading grit on the road which would have prevented the accident, if the driver hadn't been (as he admitted) running late.

Despite this, the thing about this accident is that it wasn't really anyone's fault. It was broad daylight, and the driver wasn't going that fast. The ice was practically invisible. And by the time we left the scene about one-and-a-half hours later, the ice had almost completely melted. It wasn't anybody's fault, but still the accident happened.

There's lots of things about this accident which were just the result of chance. But one crucial thing was not. The thing which saved our fellow travellers from any major injury, or worse, was something extremely simple, something extremely effective, but something which is all too often tragically disregarded by New Zealand drivers.

And that thing, that simple thing, is that every one of the people in that car was wearing their seatbelt.


Copyright (C) 1999 Matthew Thomas (mpt @ mailandnews . com).


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