Saturday, September 04, 2004

Raiding the Archives 6 - A Wheeled Tragedy

Most writers have at least a horror story or two about editors who have ripped their precious work to shreds. I've had a charmed life in that regard: with the exception of one bottle-addicted, shower-averting moron at a local paper I wrote for while in journalism school, my editors have
largely been gifted writers and mentors. Most of my work has been published in relatively unscathed form, and any changes have been deftly applied and explained. Good writers become great writers by building strong working relationships with their editors. The London Free Press is home to some of the best, and their subtle and careful shaping of my submissions has allowed them to be that much better in their final form.

I submitted this piece a year ago August, after a motorcyclist impaled himself on the back of a van a block away from our house. As I stood around the sidelines afterward, the senselessness of the loss really hit home. I wrote the article below, and my copy editor promptly called me to deliver some bad news: since the accident was being investigated by the province's Special Investigations Unit, I was highly constrained in terms of what I could and could not include in the article. The piece ended up having almost a third of its length slashed from the original submission. How my editor stepped me through the process and validated each change with me at every step will stick in my mind for a long time. I trusted my editor to deliver the goods that time out, and he did. With that in mind, here's the originally-submitted piece:

Submitted to the London Free Press on August 11, 2003
Edited version published August 13, 2003

Accident tragic on multiple levels

By Carmi Levy

It's always easy to quote statistics when you want to make a point about road safety. Numbers, after all, are great at putting opinions into their proper perspective.

Stats don't amount to a hill of beans when a motorcyclist doing 100 km/h in a residential area clips a pickup truck before ramming the back of a van. It happened in my neighbourhood last Friday night. As reported in this paper over the weekend, 29-year-old Kiley Evan Sutherland died.

Which is too bad for a whole lot of reasons. Bad for his family members, who have now lost three of four sons, and must grieve a loss that should never have happened. But does. Too often.

Bad for me, because I've always wanted to know why people put themselves and others at risk for no apparent reason. I would have liked to have spoken to him to find out what was so important that he felt compelled to try to squeeze between cars stopped at a red light. In baseball, it's called a suicide squeeze. For good reason.

Bad for the scores of onlookers who converged on the grisly scene. They, like my wife who, returning from picking up dinner with our kids, drove by just after the impact, will never quite be able to erase the sight from their minds.

Bad for the driver of the van, who thought some of his cargo had fallen out the back, and emerged to a more cruel sight.

There's something about a crumpled body lying in the middle of the road that just never leaves the mind's eye. Either that or the helmet that landed in the ditch. Or the boot that flew off after impact. Or the shattered motorcycle itself, part shards strewn everywhere as if smashed by a giant hammer.

Numbers don't have the same impact.

Every time I see people - motorists, motorcyclists, cyclists, pedestrians, whatever - misusing our roads, I want to ask them why they think it's acceptable to flout common sense, the law, and physics. If you think you're immune to any of these, you're dreaming.

At least you can still dream.

I hesitate to call this an accident. My Oxford Dictionary defines an accident as, "An event without apparent cause; an unexpected event." Sorry, but unless you're smoking some newly-legalized weed, the cause is quite apparent, and the end result was hardly unexpected. If you drive recklessly, you're going to get hurt. Or worse.

The province's Special Investigations Unit is investigating. The police say they had tried to stop him and he fled.

As difficult as it is to second guess the dead, I feel compelled to do so. How else will we teach others to make the right decisions in future?

The decision to stay or run was entirely within the Mr. Sutherland's control. Had he stopped, I'd be writing about the ice cream place down the hill. Every action in life has consequences. Some more dire than others.

And because of that, we continue to witness "accidents" with shockingly similar outcomes. I keep wanting to believe we're smarter than that, but I'm continually proven wrong.

Area residents hung around the scene until long after dark, watching the forensics team members go through their paces. I hope the kids in the crowd keep the images front and centre as they graduate from bicycles to more powerful modes of transport. If one someday thinks back to that night and decides to stop when he sees flashing lights in the rearview mirror, perhaps Mr. Sutherland's death will end up serving some higher educational purpose.

This is a tragedy on multiple levels. On the obvious one, a young man died. Not so obviously, the lesson died with him.

I hoped against hope he would survive. I wanted him to e-mail me with an explanation. I looked forward to chatting over coffee to better understand what drives people to take such unnecessary and, in this case fatal, risks.

Now we'll never know.

Carmi Levy ( is a London freelance writer. His column appears every other Wednesday.


Hi there...I'm back: Incidentally, a few weeks ago, someone put up a memorial beside a tree at the intersection where it all happened. Someone else left a bouquet of flowers. Whatever you're driving, whatever the season, may these informal roadside memorials give us all pause for thought as we set off on our own journeys. Safe travel.


Diane said...

Yes, such a tragedy. I have been very fortunate never to have witnessed something similar, although I often see roadside memorials and think about those who are left behind. You are a wonderful writer, Carmi.

carmilevy said...

Thank you so much! I am humbled by your words.