EDITOR’S NOTE: We’ve selected the following article as one of our Men’s Health Greatest Hits, a story from the archives that represents the best in our brand’s history of reporting.
“Dead Man Driving” originally appeared in the December 2009 issue of the magazine. Oliver Broudy conducted the reporting and Eric Ogden provided original photographic illustration. The piece was a finalist for a National Magazine Award in the “Personal Service” category.
A LIGHT RAIN patters the windshields on Interstate 81 in Pennsylvania. The traffic sighs and groans and pushes forward.
At the sight of the emergency vehicles huddled on the berm, the southbound drivers hesitate, some from a superstitious caution, as if the doom that claimed the crash victim might at any moment extend another tentacle; some in a gesture of respect, a kind of automotive bowing of the head; but most, let’s face it, because they want to see.
We dismiss the impulse as unworthy, and yet we wouldn’t want to look so badly if there wasn’t some lesson in this spectacle. “That could have been me,” some part of us mutters. But before the thought resolves, the traffic quickens and the serene forgetfulness of highway driving resumes.
Meanwhile, a few cars back but gaining, the statistics take up their morbid pursuit: roughly 40,000 dead every year on our roadways, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and an annual injury count of 3.2 million. One day, sometime in the next 6 years, the odds say, you’re going to be one of them.
So, this once, let’s indulge that dire curiosity. Who was the victim, and where was he going? How did he lose control, and why didn’t his car protect him? Because maybe if you know what happened back there, you can prevent the same thing from happening to you.
T-Minus 00:42:00 || 6:40 pm EST
The Crash on I-81 stands out for no particular reason. The victim is young, full of life, and well loved. His name is Adam LaBar. At 6:40 p.m. he’s just leaving work. He is 38 years old, married, has four kids—the two oldest are boys, the third a girl, the youngest a happy surprise. LaBar’s a joker, a peacemaker, a fan of Jack Nicholson and the Pittsburgh Steelers. He is by all accounts an intelligent, educated, savvy man, and yet he is entirely ignorant of one critical fact: In 42 minutes his life will undergo a violent interruption.
Tuesday is LaBar’s early day. Most days he works 10 to 10 at a car dealership in Chambersburg. He never chose to be a salesman. One day he went in to buy a car and negotiated so well that they offered him a job. He was young and the job paid well, so he took it. With his head for numbers, it wasn’t long before he worked his way up to sales manager, moving more than 100 units a month.
Still, the hours are brutal, and he never has enough time with his wife, Lisa, and the kids. He knows too well what it’s like to grow up with no father. His own dad died when he was 10, of a heart condition. LaBar’s oldest is 15—a difficult age, when good parenting is crucial. Recently Stephan was in trouble for reenacting a slo-mo fight scene from The Matrix—in the middle of science class. It wasn’t a big deal, but school administrations are easily freaked.
Now LaBar buckles into his ’07 sedan (which happens to be one of the best-selling cars in America, not that it matters) and starts to pull out. The traffic on Route 30 is always dicey this time of day, and a left turn requires a keen sense of timing. At the tired end of a gray afternoon, it’d be easy to be T-boned and end up impaled on your own elbow. In fact, driver drowsiness is a contributing factor in up to 24 percent of all crashes and near crashes, according to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.
LaBar thinks he’s a pretty good driver. He’s not unusual in this respect. According to one study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 72 percent of drivers regard themselves as more skilled than everyone else. Researchers call it the Lake Wobegon effect—a tendency to think we’re above average, particularly at relatively undemanding tasks. (It’s the rare person who considers himself an above-average juggler.) Studies trace the bias to a fundamental information imbalance, namely that the poorest performers are also the least able to recognize skill (or lack of skill) in themselves or others.
Some evidence suggests that this overconfidence is exacerbated by the design of cars themselves. For instance, studies show that the same insulated engine compartment that reduces road noise also impairs your sense of the vehicle’s speed and makes you more likely to drive closer to the vehicle in front. The speedometer, which in many vehicles reaches 140, makes whatever speed you’re driving seem manageable by comparison. And if you’re driving an SUV, with its higher vantage point, the illusion of control becomes even more pronounced.
But while cockpit ergonomics encourage a feeling of control, the truth is borne out by the car’s hidden arsenal of safety features. Behind the elegant facade, crumple zones brace for brutal impacts. Airbags hang on hair triggers. The headrest waits for the moment your head snaps back, the energy-absorbing steering column for the moment your torso crunches forward. Electronic stability control, antilock brakes, shatter-resistant windshields, all grimly anticipate statistical inevitability. By this light, your car is as much a crashing machine as a driving machine.
LaBar knows all this, on some level. He has sold the model he’s driving so many times he can reel off the safety features in his sleep. Top-of-the-line crash ratings on front and side impacts. Best acceleration in its class. Recipient of numerous awards. All he has to do is stand next to it. The thing sells itself.
Now he sneaks a right onto Franklin Farm and rolls down into the hollow. The speed limit drops to 35. A flock of starlings dodges over a cornfield. The next stop is the restaurant, which LaBar opened last month. This is his ticket out of the car business. It’s his second try. The first was a hotel that burned down in 2004. LaBar continued to work at the dealership, biding his time, waiting for the next opportunity. Now he has a second restaurant planned for Hagerstown—step 2 in his own little empire.
T-Minus 00:39:00 || 6:43 pm EST
Franklin Farm Lane ends at Walker Road. As he reaches the stop sign, LaBar’s risk of mishap multiplies. Intersections are the site of 40 percent of all crashes and 22 percent of fatal crashes. Risk is the landscape that every driver moves through, and part of being a good driver is how well you perceive it. One measure of risk perception is the position of your hands on the wheel. If they’re at 10 and 2, chances are you’re alert to danger. Right now LaBar’s are at the base of the wheel. Certainly intersections can be dangerous, but he’s passed this way maybe 2,000 times. If anything bad could happen, it would have happened by now.
The effects of familiarity on risk perception are well known. The more accustomed you are to the road, the more difficult it is for you to imagine disaster. And so it is with LaBar. His eyes stop scanning, his attention withdraws, his response time drops from around 450 milliseconds to about 1,300. Mental resources are allocated elsewhere, to a review of recent events or the anticipation of future ones. The restaurant is just 2 minutes away; the books must be checked, the kitchen inspected, the manager assuaged. Traversing the highway overpass and converging on Norland, LaBar discards his dealership persona and assumes the role of restaurant owner.
As he curves left on Walker, various road signs slide into view. We rely on signage to alert us to changes in our risk landscape—an intersection, for instance, or a construction zone. And yet studies suggest that the better marked a road is, the faster we tend to drive. Researchers call this “risk homeostasis”—the tendency to adjust our behavior to preserve a preferred level of risk. Risk taking is part of our nature. It’s what allows us to experiment, to remain undiscouraged by previous failures, and to keep cool in the midst of danger. It’s also what can lead us into danger when danger may be completely avoidable.
Highways, which are engineered for maximum safety, are particularly susceptible to risk homeostasis. The berms are cleared to reduce the chance of collisions with trees, but then the landscape seems to pass by more slowly, which invites greater speed. Lanes are widened to provide a larger safety margin, but in effect they telegraph a tacit permission to pay less attention. That’s the great thing about rumble strips, says Tom Vanderbilt, the author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do. “They increase your safety without increasing your perception of safety.”
Even if we were immune to this sort of behavioral blowback, not even the best signage could warn you of the deadliest hazard: the other driver. But just who is the other driver? Surveys indicate there’s a nearly 80 percent chance that he speeds regularly, and a 53 percent likelihood that he talks on the phone while driving. There’s a 4 percent chance he runs red lights—on purpose—and a 2 percent chance he has driven after he’s had too much to drink. The more you learn about this person, the less you want to meet him. Yet chances are you will, because you share the road with him every day.
T-Minus 00:07:00 || 7:15 pm EST
LaBar leaves the restaurant carrying two pizzas, a plain and a meat lover’s. Tonight Lisa has a break from cooking. It’s late May and the air is humid and loamy. Even here in the parking lot, amid so much asphalt, you can smell the manure that’s spread over the cornfields.
LaBar hooks a left out of the parking lot, and is again on Walker. At the top of the hill he eases onto the I-81 on-ramp, cruising down to join the highway’s southward flow. His attention surges along with his tachometer as he accelerates to match the traffic. Driving is a cooperative activity, notes James Jenness, Ph.D., of Westat, a research center in Rockville, Maryland. The more your driving blends in, the safer you are. This principle has its limits, however. Black cars, one New Zealand study reveals, are twice as likely to crash as white cars, while red and yellow cars are less likely to crash. The safest of all cars, then, may be the one that looks the most different but acts most the same.
LaBar’s car is brick red, which has the disadvantage of appearing black at night, and the additional disadvantage of being difficult to perceive peripherally. Now he tunes the radio to 94.3 WQCM—a local rock station. If he’s anything like the rest of us, LaBar will adjust his controls three times in the next 20 minutes, with each adjustment taking 5.5 seconds. That’s 5.5 seconds when his eyes may not be on the road and both hands may not be on the wheel. Even when he’s not fiddling with the controls, the tempo of the music could double his chance of a crash, suggests a study from Israel’s Ben-Gurion University.
“If music is above 60 beats per minute,” says Conrad King, a consultant psychologist to Britain’s Royal Automobile Club Foundation, “listeners experience a faster heart rate and increased blood pressure.” In general, the foundation concluded, you should stay away from Wagner and Motorhead and stick to more laid-back stuff, like Bach’s cello suites or Dido.
Music is just one of a dozen factors that can affect your response on the roadway. Dialing a phone triples your risk of a crash. Reaching for a moving object increases it nine times. Worst of all is texting, which according to another Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study, makes you 23 times more likely to crash.
As technology develops and our cars gradually morph into rolling computers with built-in Internet, navigation, and entertainment consoles, experts see distraction as the big threat to road safety. As DUI was to the ’80s and road rage was to the ’90s, so “distraction” is to this decade. Yes, there is always the possibility that new technology will come along to protect us from the dangers of the old technology: night vision; collision detection systems; vibration feedback when you drift out of your lane; even audio alerts from your headrest, the electronic equivalent of someone shouting “boo!”
But there’s an opportunity here to recognize an important truth about ourselves. Advances in technology are quickly turning attention into our most valuable resource. Treating it as such, and allocating it wisely, could mean the difference between life and death. This is easier said than done, of course. Because what if you’re on your way home from work and your 12-year-old son calls? What kind of dad wouldn’t answer?
T-Minus 00:02:36 || 7:19:24 pm EST
Thunderstorms prowl the horizon to the west. After a day of hustling, there are few things LaBar looks forward to more than sitting out back with Lisa and watching the clouds drag their dark curtain over the land. There’s something weirdly calming about observing distant trouble. Once they sat out there until 3 in the morning, just talking, drinking Coronas, and pointing at satellites.
Theirs was a classic American romance. They met around a jukebox on a Saturday night. She shot a glance at him, his buddy threw an elbow into his ribs, and it was on. Now he can picture her waiting for him with the children by the pool. The water leaps as Stephan lands a cannonball.
T-Minus 00:00:02.67 || 7:22:06.33 pm EST
The road is wet. We know that much. And we know about the phone call. To pick it up, he glances away from the road for a second—or 95 feet at the speed he is traveling, 65 miles per hour. And as driving instructors stress, your hands tend to follow where your eyes are looking, so perhaps Labar’s hands shift imperceptibly on the steering wheel, changing the course of his vehicle. Maybe he adjusts radio volume, too, or reaches to keep the pizza boxes from sliding off the seat. The phone conversation is brief. LaBar says . . .
T-Minus 00:00:02.31 || 7:22:06.69 pm ES
“Oh God — “
Deep in his brain, his amygdala sparks a fear signal, and his heart starts blasting blood to his muscles. Vision narrows. Hearing dims. The adrenaline spike momentarily disrupts executive function as the ancient fight-flight impulse girds his body for an entirely different kind of conflict than the one he’s facing at this moment. In the sedan there is no jaguar to flee or rival to pummel. Instead, LaBar faces an array of roughly 50 levers and buttons, all but perhaps three of which have become unusable, given the loss of his fine motor control. In fact, LaBar is so shocked right now that it may not even occur to him to drop his phone.
There’s still a chance he could turn this into a near crash. For every actual crash, drivers experience 11 near crashes, according to a study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, a fact that by itself demonstrates the mortal importance of evasive maneuvering. But evasive maneuvers depend on experience, and there’s little in LaBar’s experience that speaks to his current peril. Nor should this be surprising. After all, even if we are scheduled to crash every 6 years and nearly crash every 7 months, that’s still not enough practice to learn much. One study, in fact, has shown that close to 30 percent of drivers involved in car crashes take no evasive measures at all.
Even if you do respond—and respond correctly—a lot depends on your car. While every vehicle sold in America must meet federal safety standards, there’s still plenty of room for variation in handling performance. Take skid resistance. A sports car can endure nearly 50 percent more cornering forces than a full-sized SUV before skidding, says Dave VanderWerp, the technical director at Car and Driver magazine. “That’s a huge, huge difference in how much grip you have,” VanderWerp says, “and how much the car can handle in terms of steering away from a potential accident.”
The variation among passenger cars in braking ability is equally dramatic. At 70 mph, the worst performers require an additional 30 feet to reach a full stop. “If you look up and the car is stopped in front of you,” VanderWerp says, “depending on what car you’re in, you may stop in time or you may continue another 30 feet, which is forever in a situation like that.”
LaBar’s car has pretty good skid resistance, and among the best brake ratings for a car in its class. But he’s not on a test track at the moment. Swerving left and into the median, he’s not even on the road.
T-Minus 00:00:01.81 || 7:22:07.19 pm EST
“The way this often happens is that the driver actually goes off the right side of the road,” says Joel Stitzel, Ph.D., a biomechanics expert on an elite crash-investigation team at the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest center for injury biomechanics, “and when he realizes he’s off the road, he oversteers to the left. And as soon as he goes back onto the road his wheels are turned too far, so the first thing he does is fly across the road and through the median.”
The tires lose their grip and the car starts to spin, skidding sideways across the wet grass and into the path of oncoming traffic.
“The thing is, the driver doesn’t usually have that much control. Probably he’s just trying to keep the steering wheel from turning in his hands, because it becomes really responsive to the ground. When it starts jumping around in your hands, you become freaked out. Unless you’ve been trained, you don’t know what to do.”
LaBar can’t even see it because his car is skidding backward, but coming his way at about 70 miles per hour from the opposite direction is a Chevy Silverado pickup that weighs 8,000 pounds. Yards . . . feet . . . inches . . . a panicked instant —
00:00:00.00 || 7:22:09.00 pm EST
Too fast to describe, too fast to experience. Other things operate at this speed—crunching metal, shattering glass—but not human thought. The Silverado punches deep into the car’s right rear flank, crumpling the bumper into the trunk, popping the wheel from the right-rear well, and twisting the C-pillar like a licorice stick. As the crash pulse launches forward, the door panels buckle and the erupting windows send a blizzard of glass tinkling into the Silverado’s grille.
It all occurs in roughly the time it takes an eyelid to swoop down over your cornea and flick back again. And this is the problem, ultimately. Because it’s not the crash that kills you. It’s how quickly it happens. If you could take the impact and spread it over 5 seconds, the likelihood of injury would decrease dramatically. That’s why crash cushions guard exit ramps. A cement divider would stop your car just as well, but much less gradually. Violence, in other words, is a function of time.
The principle is reflected in automotive safety design, says Stitzel. “A lot of people think a seatbelt is designed only to hold you in the same place in your vehicle, but in fact it does more than that. It’s designed to let you have a longer duration of deceleration than the vehicle has. So while the vehicle might stop in 50 to 100 milliseconds, you might get 150 to 200 milliseconds to ride down that impact.”
These are small numbers, but they can make a huge difference, Stitzel says. It begins with the bumper, then the crumple zones, the C-pillar, the seatbelt pretensioner. Everything is designed to contribute another few milliseconds to the crash duration experienced by the occupant. When pooled together, these scraps of time are often enough to keep the force of the crash below injury-threshold levels.
T-Plus 00:00:00.10 || 7:22:09.10 pm EST
It’s as if LaBar’s car has been dropped from a height of 54 feet. The crush easily exceeds 20 inches. There are three big impacts in any crash, says Stitzel. “The vehicle hits the other vehicle; the occupant loads the restraint system; and then the occupant’s internal organs load the inner chest wall or the inside of the skull.”
It’s this third impact that we tend to forget about. The human body, says Stitzel, did not evolve to cope with impacts of this order. If it did, our chest cavity—instead of a big open space packed with soft tissue—would be braced with internal restraints. Lacking such restraints, there’s nothing to prevent your aorta, for instance, from rupturing when you stop too quickly. At that point—even if you’re otherwise free of visible injury—you’re dead.
Your skull, by the same token, is basically a big yogurt container. The brain’s only other crash restraints are the delicate internal structures that allow it to function.
T-Plus 00:00:00.15 || 7:22:09.30 PM EST
The crash pulse reaches LaBar. That’s when LaBar’s brain and all the thoughts in it try to part ways from the surrounding cranium, the one continuing southbound on I-81, the other rocketing forward with the impact from the truck. The disagreement lasts a fraction of a second, as long as it takes for his brain to squish the cerebrospinal fluid out of the way and pound against the cranial wall.
Some parts of the brain are denser than others, and now this fact assumes fatal importance, because when a collision of greater than 15 mph occurs, the denser parts start shearing away from the less-dense parts, producing cataclysmic tears across the neural net. It’s called diffuse axonal injury (DAI), a reference to the nerve fibers that conduct electrical impulses between neurons. “It’s probably the worst brain injury you can have,” says Shayn Martin, M.D., the trauma surgeon on Stitzel’s crash team. “Bleeds are fixable. If you can move a patient into the operating room fast enough, you can open up the cranium, drain the blood, and potentially save some brain tissue.”
But among trillions of neurons, DAI is so spread out it often can’t even be seen on a CT scan. “The real way we diagnose it,” Dr. Martin says, “is that folks just don’t wake up.”
T-Plus 00:00:15 || 7:22:24 pm EST
In the basement of the courthouse in downtown Chambersburg, the calls pour in to the Franklin County 911 Center: a severe crash on I-81 with possible entrapment. The computer-assisted dispatch unit gives a chirp as the call taker logs the incident and the location flashes on the other dispatch screens. Seconds later the fire dispatcher is punching the audibles for Company 100, Company 8, and Station 4, trailed by the warble that signifies an MVA, a motor-vehicle accident.
Bob Shearer is en route to the West Shore station when he receives the call in Medic 100, a Ford Explorer Advanced Life Support unit. Mile marker 13 is about 5 miles away. After 25 years of doing this, Shearer knows what to expect. The dispatch itself can tell you a lot. For instance, they wouldn’t have sent those extra ambulance units if the crash wasn’t serious.
Now traffic mooches out of his way as he aims south on 81 beneath a crown of flashing lights. The first sign of trouble is a white truck stalled in a cornfield, but it looks intact and the driver is already walking around. Then he sees the red sedan and the yaw marks leading across the median, like death’s own driveway.
T-Plus 00:06:15 || 7:28:26 pm EST
By the time Shearer reaches the scene, the victim’s neck has already been stabilized by a Good Samaritan. The victim is a white male, mid-30s, out cold. Shuddering snores emerge from his mouth, and he could almost be in a deep, comfortable slumber, were it not for the crumpled mayhem around him and that gash on his forehead. Another even larger gash oozes blood over his right ear—likely the dagger work of a shattered rearview mirror.
In a crash, everything in the car becomes a potential weapon. A collapsible steering wheel can crush the ribs of an unrestrained driver. A and B pillars perform like baseball bats in the hands of a Mafia hit man. Seatbelts crack clavicles, bruise spleens, burst bladders. Even the gentlest of restraints—the airbag—can shatter limbs and leave alkali burns on eyes.
As a paramedic, you learn to look for certain kinds of injuries. Shearing breaks in the forearms, for instance. Drivers instinctively brace for a crash, but bone can handle only so much pressure before cracking at the weakest point, and then you’re in horror country, with fragments spearing upward through the skin. Drunks have this much going for them: Too bombed to brace, they suffer fewer breaks.
Not LaBar. Raindrops dampen Shearer’s back as he leans into the passenger compartment to inspect the disfiguring lump below the victim’s left elbow.
T-Plus 00:08:32 || 7:30:41 pm EST
From here it all goes by the book. Two minutes after Medic 100 arrives, the Franklin Fire squad truck pulls up and secures the scene, checking the car for gasoline leaks and snipping the battery lines so the remaining airbags don’t trip. Meanwhile, Shearer attaches a heart monitor and runs a line into LaBar’s right hand before the veins can retract into the muscle—one of the body’s responses to trauma. Then he straps an oxygen mask onto LaBar—with a head injury the patient needs all he can get.
Engine 8-2 from Marion Volunteer Fire Company handles the extrication. The response has been flawless, and yet as they shift LaBar onto the backboard and bear him to the ambulance, everyone notices the arms twitching creepily inward like broken bird wings. It’s called decorticate posturing, and it usually indicates brain damage.
T-Plus 00:27:51 || 7:55:00 pm EST
At the quiet end of Melrose Avenue, Lisa LaBar sits on her front porch, waiting for her husband. Kyle mentioned the disconnected call, but calls are dropped all the time. Her phone rings. Raising it to her ear, she expects Adam’s voice. What she hears instead is the other manager from Adam’s dealership. She can’t understand what he’s saying at first. Then she recoils as the meaning of his words assaults her like a shrieked obscenity.
T-Plus 00:40:30 || 8:02:39 pm EST
On 81 North, the lights of the emergency vehicles burn colored holes in the gathering dusk. LaBar is trache’d, and loaded aboard Stat MedEvac 12, a rescue chopper bound for York Hospital. The fire teams pack up and prepare to pull out. In both directions, mute lines of gray traffic reach back for miles. By the time most of them arrive at mile marker 13, the cause of the delay will have vanished.
LaBar spends the ensuing 5 days in Bay 8 of the York Hospital trauma center. He is pumped with drugs, and a pressure probe is sunk into his skull. The swelling shifts his brain more than a quarter of an inch to the right. As the pressure rises, his brain jams downward through the only exit, corking bloodflow. No more oxygen. At 8:35 a.m. on Sunday morning, the coroner signs the death certificate.
None of this had to happen. And the same can be said of nearly every accident. That’s why federal transportation agencies are careful about how they use the word. “Accident” implies complicity with fate. A metaphysical shrugging of the shoulders: “So it goes.” We say this after the fact to reconcile ourselves to tragedy, but calling crashes what they are reminds us that they can be anticipated—and therefore prevented.
We pass by the crumpled vehicle of Adam LaBar, and thousands of accidents like his. It cannot happen to us. Until it does. You hope that your seatbelt will save you, or that proper road design and signage will point the other 2-ton hunks of flying metal in the right directions. Even so, disaster is never more than a twist of the wheel away.
In the end, the only thing that can stop it is you.
Oliver Broudy has written for Men’s Health, The New York Times, Mother Jones, and many other publications. He has written about mega-pop stars, mega-sports stars, kung-fu, anarchy, and lots of weird medical conditions. His new book, The Sensitives, will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2020.