There’s an old saying I’ve heard from veterans describing war or vacationers coming back from an exotic locale: you wouldn’t understand until you’ve been there yourself.
In a way, I have been when it comes to traffic crashes. Oh, I’ve had a few fender-benders, but nothing like what I witnessed in my previous life as a reporter in small communities in Kansas. Those opportunities afforded me access to some of the most horrific and tragic crashes one can imagine.
One of the first was in the summer of 1986 while working on my last night of an internship in Pittsburg. Regular staff members were taking their vacations so I filled in while they were gone. My summer ended on the cops and court beat. The court side was easy as there were few happenings worth reporting during that stretch. The police beat was a bit different and quite enlightening to what reporters and emergency responders face on any given call.
This particular evening a call came in over the scanner of a two-car accident near the airport northwest of town. Our photographer and I grabbed gear and headed out to what we suspected was a bad scene. And it was.
Two teens had “borrowed” mom’s car and were out driving country roads at a high rate of speed when they blew through an intersection and collided broadside with a pick-up truck. The truck was knocked into a field and heavily damaged. We could see the EMS crews working to save the young driver. And just like in the movies, sparks and smoke were coming from the vehicle, giving a sense of urgency.
Where was the other vehicle? What was left of the small car was a crumpled heap near the fence row. The two young boys were thrown from the car and lie dead in the tall weeds in the ditch. I didn’t know them, but knew they weren’t much younger than me. In an instant, what seemed like a fun summer night driving around town turned deadly.
Those images stuck with me through college and my first job in Arkansas City where I was a reporter and editor. A similar call came in the newsroom one afternoon about the time school was letting out. A one-car accident was reported in the northwest part of the county.
We pulled to the scene and EMS and fire crews were working the accident. A young man had lost control of his car and crashed into a fence row. He was killed instantly.
I share these stories as a former reporter and as a current parent. They are images that are forever etched in my memories. They were so-called war stories that reporters share when discussing what they’ve done over the years. But as a parent now of two teens that are learning to drive, they serve as teaching moments that cause me to tense up each time they are behind the wheel.
Not every trip out of the driveway will end in tragedy, but I want my children—everyone’s children— to know the risks. It’s dangerous enough under normal circumstances for these young drivers to navigate town. Adding too much speed, hazardous weather or all of the distractions of modern technology and the risks multiply.
I don’t want some young reporter to ever have to walk up to a crash and see another child injured or killed. While they may be good teaching moments or stories to share back at the newsroom, they are tragedies that can’t be reversed.
John Milburn is the Director of Legislative and Public Affairs for the Kansas Department of Administration