Jeffrey Zaslow's Death Underscores Problems On The Roads

I lost a colleague Friday to a cause of death that's become all too common.

There have been and will be plenty of tears for Jeffrey Zaslow, a Wall Street Journal columnist of wide-renown and a friend. He was beloved by many.

I worry that even though a huge community of people will grieve Zaslow, most will accept his death as a tragic accident, something completely unpreventable that could happen to any of us.

No one is going to hold a charity walk to help people who survived these kinds of accidents. No one will be wearing any ribbons to express how sick and tired they are of this thing happening.

Car accidents just happen. Right?

"It was amazing how many people would say, 'I guess it was just his time,'" said Jeffrey Runge, a former emergency room doctor who was head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 2001 to 2005. His quote comes from a USA Today interview from 2006, in which he talked about teen driving deaths and how preventable many of them are.

But it's not just teen driving deaths that are far too common, and far too accepted. Although fatalities in the U.S. have been on a steady decline since laws mandating seatbelt use were enacted, that's not the case globally. According to the Global Road Safety Partnership, every day around the world, enough people to fill 10 jumbo jets die in car accidents. Every day. That's like losing the entire population of Fair Lawn, N.J., on Monday, then losing everyone living in Beverly Hills, Calif., on Tuesday. And then losing all the citizens of Golden Glades, Fla., on Wednesday. And so on.

My entire career has been colored by car accidents. I can't ignore them. When I hear ambulance sirens, I remember cracked windshields covered in blood. When I see a story in the paper about someone dying in a crash, I think about those moments when the police car arrives at their home to notify the family the driver has died. I've spent a lot of time talking to families about the deceased's final days or hours, but when I hear about fatal car accidents, I think about the driver's last moments. The moments no one witnessed. Were they panicked? Did they feel pain? Did their radio keep playing while their world was collapsing?

And on Friday, a car accident killed Jeff, a man I hold in high regard and a mentor to many young journalists who crossed his path, including myself. He hit a patch of ice while driving along a highway in northern Michigan. His car skidded into the path of a semi-truck.

A lot of people are devastated by the news. Jeff's Facebook page is filled with an outpouring of kind words and memories. He adored his wife and three daughters. Their lives will never be the same.

I couldn't help this weekend but think about the first person I knew who died from a car accident. Her name was Jackie Curcio. She was gorgeous and smart and friendly -- the kind of girl who intimidates other girls just because she can't help but be amazing. In 1993, she was hit by a drunk driver on her way home one night from her boyfriend's house. We were 20.

I started writing for the college newspaper a few months after she died, and I named my column "Watershed," after a line in an Indigo Girls' song that hit me in the gut: "Twisted guardrails on the highway, broken glass on the cement. The ghost of someone's tragedy; how recklessly my time has been spent."

A few years later, I found myself as a young reporter standing out beside those twisted guardrails. I spent cold nights, rainy rush hours and some beautiful spring days standing at the side of the road, collecting details for stories. Eventually, it became too much.

Now I write about the auto industry from a business perspective, and although the safety aspect is just a slice of what I do, it is what I am most passionate about.

I have some ideas of what needs fixing. Driver education in this country needs a complete overhaul. It has been underfunded, unregulated and mismanaged for far too long. Anyone who took driver's ed in the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s learned how to drive in the dark ages of American driver's ed.

And the country could use a massive public education outreach initiative to re-teach the public about what it means to be a good driver. Something similar to the campaigns that took us out of the Mad Men era and into a world that knows cigarettes are bad and drunk driving is worse.

Freak accidents happen on the road, and so it is impossible to eliminate all road fatalities. There will always be times when patches of ice turn into disaster. Still, safety experts know there are lots of things that can be done to bring the number of fatalities down.

I refuse to accept the idea that fatal car accidents are just the price we pay for a mobile society. But it's not an issue that people seem to be rallying around. Sometimes when I talk to people about car safety, particularly parents of new teen drivers, I can see their eyes glaze over. They don't want to know.

"At some point, public opinion will change," said Andrew Pearce, chief executive of GRSP at a safety conference in Cincinnati this fall. "Culture is not a fixed entity. It changes with time and stimulus from society."

For Jackie and Jeff's memories, I will continue to be part of that stimulus for as long as I can.