Insurance Information Institute (I.I.I.) chief actuary James Lynch brings us a cautionary tale from the open road:
It’s a gritty drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco as I learned with my wife and older daughter this summer — a climb through dry mountains, then across the nation’s Salad Bowl, the San Joaquin Valley, passing strings of tractor-trailers headed up the interstate toward Sacramento and cow country.
Like most tourists, we left the trailers behind by turning west on state Route 46. My wife drove. We passed a thicket of oil derricks and, frankly, not much else. The roads were well-designed and well-kept. Everyone drove fast. Far off we saw the hills that would lead us to Highway 101 and north again.
We came upon what, for that desolate place, was a major intersection — a flashing yellow light and a lane that let oncoming traffic turn left in front of us. A line of cars waited to make that left. Daylight was fading, and it was hard to pick out exactly how many wanted to turn or whether any had begun to.
“That looks like a dangerous spot,” I said.
Then we saw the sign: James Dean Memorial Junction.
Yeah. Right there, 60 years ago — September 30, 1955 — actor James Dean was cruising maybe 85 in his Porsche Spyder when Donald Turnupseed turned left. In moments Dean went from an astounding actor (East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, Giant) to a roadside tragedy.
He wasn’t a teen-ager, but he was a teen idol squeezed between the Sinatra and Elvis eras, and now his case is one I can’t help but think of as that older daughter baby-steps toward her first license this fall.
James Dean Memorial Junction still seems dodgy, but overall driving is much safer. The accident rate has fallen on average about 1 percent a year for decades. But long-term trends have statistical blips. We are in one now.
As we at the I.I.I. note in our Facts and Statistics on highway safety, traffic fatalities at mid-year are 14 percent higher than the same period last year, according to National Safety Council estimates. The economy has improved. People are driving more and perhaps less safely — faster, more texting.
The third week in October is National Teen Driver Safety Week, an event my daughter will be made well aware of, but this year we should all heed its message: Be careful behind the wheel.