The FNP headline read, “Man, 18, killed in head-on crash in Walkersville.” According to the news report, Damien Carey Betts was driving south on Md. 194 north of Devilbiss Bridge Road just after 8:30 a.m. A northbound Volkswagen Rabbit moved toward the center line, causing him to veer right, according to Maryland State Police Cpl. Todd Hill. When he attempted to steer back onto the road, Betts overcorrected and drove into the opposite lane of traffic, slamming head-on into a GMC pickup driven by Robert Huyett Startzman, 47, of Hagerstown.
With surprising frequency, crashes are reported on two-lane country roads in which one car suddenly veers across the center line and crashes head-on into an on-coming vehicle or goes into the opposite ditch. The scenario is something like this: Car A is approaching car B. The driver of A moves to the right to give B more room and inadvertently drops a wheel off the edge of the pavement. Driver A over-controls on the recovery, which causes Car A to veer across the road into the path of car B.
The natural tendency is to jerk the steering wheel to the left to bring the car’s wheel back onto the pavement. This introduces what engineers call a step-change in the lateral or side-to-side motion of the vehicle. If the suspension is somewhat loose, the result will be a violent side-to-side fish-tail that is extremely difficult to control. The divergence carries the vehicle across the road into an on-coming vehicle or into the opposite ditch.
Some high-end automobiles have stability augmentation systems that help to prevent these divergences. Most cars, however, do not and drivers must be able to control their vehicles under adverse circumstances.
When I started driving, cars were as big as minivans today (but not as good) and roll-over crashes were common. We were taught to remain calm if a wheel went off the edge, slow down, and then ease back on to the pavement. If this technique isn’t taught in driver education class, it should be. Moreover, drivers should be tested about it somewhere in the driver’s test and they should know the answer before they get a driver’s license.
When I took my driver’s test, one question in the oral part of the driver’s exam was, “How do you control the vehicle and get it back on the road after dropping a wheel off the edge of the pavement?” This question should be asked of every prospective Maryland driver. Many roads in Maryland are narrow two-lane paths where unwary drivers can get in trouble in many ways. Knowledge is essential in any human endeavor. This is most true for drivers who can be killed by what seems like an innocuous mistake.
Education is an on-going process. Drivers should at least be required to pass the written driver’s exam (with a 95% score) each time they renew their driver’s license. Drivers transferring in from another state should be required to pass the whole body of drivers’ tests to ensure that they meet Maryland standards.
Drivers flaunt traffic rules with seeming impunity – particularly cell phone use. Generally they survive it but sometimes not. Which begs a question: Was Mr. Betts perhaps using a cell phone when he was surprised by an unexpected move by another driver, who may also have been using a cell phone?