August 7, 1996 in City

Drivers’ Carelessness Teases Disaster

Gabby Richards The Washington Post

I am amazed, day after day, how drivers maneuver on the roads as if tragedy is something that strikes someone else, as if cars do not strike immovable objects and flip over and burst into flames, and people do not lie within them, trembling, awaiting rescue or death, whichever comes first.

I am invincible.

When a driver rides my bumper, then races past me angrily, I try to maintain my composure. I’m not new to the road, but until this March I hadn’t been behind the wheel in almost seven years. My trip to work every day is an adventure, one made difficult because I use my left wrist to control the gas and brake, and my right wrist to steer. I cannot grip a steering wheel.

I observe traffic signs. Other drivers often do not.

I am in no danger. I have control.

It was August 1989. I was 18 years old, one week into my first year of college. I had been boating on an Oklahoma lake with the best of friends when, at about 1 a.m., we decided to drive the 20 miles back to Tulsa.

Twenty miles. Familiar highway.

I heard screams, then a noise that still shakes me when thunder crashes or a door slams shut. I know now that the noise was our Ford Bronco first hitting construction barrels, then smashing into a bridge abutment with such force that it threw me from my sleep in the back seat and broke my neck.

I couldn’t move. I couldn’t scream. I couldn’t feel my arms and legs, which led me to believe they no longer were attached. The Bronco was upside down and on fire and my two friends were frantically trying to kick out the windshield. One crouched over me to protect me from exposed glass, as blood dripped from her broken nose. They crawled to safety. I was still trapped.

A truck driver extinguished the flames. Firefighters talked me through it as they cut a hole in the roof of the Bronco. I was so sleepy, but I was scared to close my eyes for fear that I never would regain consciousness. I was paralyzed, frightened and forever touched by tragedy.

I control my destiny.

I decided to drive again out of frustration with cabdrivers. I bought a minivan from a dealership in Nebraska, had it shipped to New Mexico to be converted for wheelchair use and asked my parents to drive it here so it could be fitted with additional controls.

After one year of waiting and much expense, it sat parked in the lot, teasing me with its offer of greater independence. Then I drove. I practiced with my dad and took a few lessons to familiarize myself with using my arms rather than my feet.

I don’t drive too slowly. I don’t drive too fast. I use my turn signals. I believe amber lights mean slow down. I’m certain red ones are intended to make you stop. I don’t aim for pedestrians in crosswalks, and I don’t think seat belts were intended as decorative straps.

Bad things happen to other people.

Sports, in high school, consumed my life. Basketball, field hockey, softball, golf, racquetball, soccer. Each was my best sport. I had gloves, balls, bats, hats, socks, helmets, sticks, clubs and uniforms for every season. I epitomized the female jock.

An entire box in my college dormitory was devoted to sporting equipment, and my mountain bike left little room. Athletics, it could be said, defined my existence.

But my best friend fell asleep at the wheel, just a mile from our exit and a few blocks from her home. It was a drive she often had made and one that, until that night, had been as ordinary as any other. In an instant, our lives shifted from thoughts of the future to those of the past and what we’d done to deserve such devastation. I’ve yet to find an answer.

Hospitals, I can assure you, are no fun. Rehabilitation is an act of torture. I spent six months learning to function with no leg use and little muscular function in my arms. Ah, minor triumphs. Like when I finally sat up without passing out. Or when I brushed my teeth - solo.

It happened to me when I seemed invincible. It happened without warning, through no fault of my own. It happened on a familiar road, in a familiar car, at a safe speed, with my best friend, in what was supposed to be the beginning of my adulthood. The accident threw me into dependency; it devastated my mom and dad. That alone is reason enough to be sad. Or motivation to succeed despite a physical impairment.

Of this I am certain: Drivers are careless. Their aggressive driving will kill and injure others. And they are oblivious to the danger.

Some damage cannot be undone. Listen. Listen carefully. My road from 1989 to 1996 has been filled with more potholes than you can possibly fathom.


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