This weekend is, for me, a tragic anniversary of sorts. On Saturday, October 11, 1986, I got the news that my cousin Waseem Toosy had died in a traffic accident in Saudi Arabia–on his way, ironically enough, to medical school. Waseem had periodically lived with us while he studied here in the States; he was like a brother to me. He was, I think, 18 or 19 when he died; I was 17. In yet another irony, his late father had been an orthopedic surgeon, and his brother Naeem ended up becoming an emergency-room physician.
By some strange semi-coincidence, early in the morning of Saturday, October 10, 1998, I got the news that my best friend Ikram Zafar had died in a traffic accident somewhere outside of Portland, Oregon. Once again, an irony intrudes: Ikram was a pediatric trauma surgeon at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh UPMC. He once invited me to spend a shift with him there in the Emergency Department, where (wearing a white coat and pretending to be a physician) I watched him handle a pediatric trauma case helicoptered in from West Virginia. I still remember the case: a little boy with a broken femur sustained in a motor vehicle accident; the kid was hit by a car while riding his bike. Dr. Zafar made a point of showing me the femoral bone sticking out of the kid’s leg. It’s one of the blessings of selective memory that I don’t remember what it looked like.
Ikram had been married just months before the accident, and his wife Sehar, who was in the front passenger seat, died in the crash alongside him. His sister-in-law Aisha was thrown from the car and lost a hand, and his brother-in-law (whose name I’ve regrettably forgotten) broke his collarbone.
Another cousin of mine, Awais Jilani, a talented painter and poet, was paralyzed from the waist down in a motorcycle accident in Pakistan. I don’t remember the date or exact location in this case. The son of another cousin was also killed in a traffic accident in Pakistan. It seems not to be a coincidence that all four of the preceding drivers were young men.
Besides this, I’ve witnessed and been at the scene of countless motor vehicle collisions in real time. One of them was a fatal accident in Hamilton, New Jersey (on Quakerbridge Road), probably in 1999. I arrived at the scene seconds after the accident took place, called 911 (I heard but didn’t see it happen), waited an agonizing 25 minutes (by the watch) for help to arrive, and then watched a badly-trained first responder break the victim’s neck on arrival–a woman trapped under a pickup truck. Earlier, while we were waiting for help to arrive, a crowd had gathered around the woman, criticizing her driving as the truck crushed her neck; her husband tried to ignore them, comforting her and speaking in low tones until “help” arrived. I later read in the newspaper that the woman died that night at the trauma center at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick. I think it’s the most demoralizing event I’ve ever had to watch, but I don’t feel like searching my memory banks right now for the winner of that contest.
Then there was an accident in Nutley, New Jersey (corner of Centre Street and Washington) sometime in the 2010s: I forget exactly what happened, but one vehicle involved had a mother and little boy in it, both of whom were injured. Though I no longer remember the details of the collision, I do remember that I saw this one happen, and called 911 almost immediately after it did; this time, the fire department and rescue squad were very quick to arrive, and did a very good job getting the victims out of the crumpled vehicle.
But I can’t help dwelling on what happened next: the injured mother, strapped to a gurney and unable to see very far, began to weep profusely and ask after her son, who was inside an ambulance. After five plaintive inquiries, the paramedic got impatient and told Mom to “shut the fuck up already” about her child, because “he’s fine, he’s fine, we got him.” The kid wasn’t exactly fine, but he wasn’t badly hurt, and telling the mom to “shut the fuck up” was not exactly helpful, but eventually, they put Mom in the ambulance with the child, so I guess that solved the immediate problem. I had to fight the temptation to intervene by punching the paramedic in the face, but figured that wouldn’t have helped things, either.
My favorite car-wreck story features a goal-line save made by yours truly. In high school, four of us–two guys, two girls–broke school rules to drive out in a snowstorm and get some lunch off campus. On the way back from lunch, one of the girls retrieved some skis she’d left at a ski shop, then sat in the front passenger seat next to the driver with the skis between them. The skis kept falling onto the driver, who pushed them back at the passenger; after awhile, the two of them, passenger and driver, began to play a giggling game of pushing the skis onto each other while we drove along in the snow. As they played this game, our car veered into the wrong lane toward oncoming traffic. Whereupon your hero, scrutinizing the road from the back seat, broke in:
Watch the fucking road! Watch! Watch! Watch!
We were on a collision course with another car at 45 mph. The driver of our car hit the brakes and pulled hard back into our lane, but at that speed, we began to skid in the snow. That pulled us out of a full-on collision with the oncoming car, but we still hit it, and hit it hard. My last thought before impact was a confident seventeen-year-old’s expectation of survival: “I won’t die,” I remember thinking in a triumph of inductive illogic, “I’ve never died before.”
Turns out I didn’t die. But when we got out of the car, the other driver was slumped over the wheel, his door was jammed shut, and we couldn’t get him out. “He’s dead!” one of the girls blurted out. “We fucking killed him!”
I found the claim premature. For reasons I still can’t explain, the Overture to Mozart’s “Magic Flute” suddenly started going through my head, convincing me that I ought to run and get help. I did, running along in the snow, powered by Mozart, then returned to the scene, and suddenly realized that we were getting late for class. So (at her gallant urging) we ditched our driver-friend before the cops came, hitched a ride on a delivery truck nearby, and made it back to school in time for calculus. Turns out the other driver didn’t die. I don’t even think our driver got in that much trouble (not that I really kept tabs, having reached safety myself). The front seat passenger, I know, got off scot-free; she ditched our driver along with the rest of us. All’s well that ends well, I guess. (That said, I’m sure the parties to this episode are glad that I left their names out of the story.)
I could keep regaling you with car-wreck stories, but I think you catch my drift.
It took awhile to come to terms with all of this, but I guess I ended up by coping in the way I always cope with things: I turned it into a topic of study and, for lack of a better terminology, activism and practice. I read up on traffic law and traffic safety, took a AAA defensive driving course, and did what I could to make myself a better driver. So far I’ve only presented a single paper on the topic, but barring premature mortality, I guess I have time to revise and submit it some day. With the exception of a single fender-bender twenty years ago in a parking lot (Lawrenceville Post Office, whose parking lot I curse to this day) I’ve never gotten into a traffic accident. And that one was self-evidently the other driver’s fault: she hit me while I was stopped at a stop sign and boxed in with nowhere to go.
In the U.S. alone, 38,000 people died in traffic collisions last year, and 4.4 million were hospitalized for MVC-related injuries. These figures represent a decline from past years; I guess there’s disagreement about what that really implies. But whether the decline implies progress, regress, or stasis, the figures are still too high. I don’t know what the figures are for emotional trauma; I can only tell you that it’s real.
I’ve embedded a few visuals in this post. The Mozart one is, I hope, self-evident. I belatedly inserted a photo of my cousin Awais’s gravestone, care of another cousin, Fawad Zakariya. There’s a grainy photo of Ikram and Sehar’s gravestone, which used to sit in my office at Felician University; I’d glance at it as I left the office each day before my commute home. Unfortunately, I don’t have a comparable memento of my cousin Waseem. Also embedded is a video by Dr. Leonard Evans, probably the world’s expert on traffic safety, and someone I now regard as a kind of online “buddy.” I’ve put references to some of his books, and a few others I’ve found useful, in the notes below the line.*
In reference to the dead, I can’t do better than repeat an old Muslim prayer: Inna ilayhi w inna ilayhi raji’un. “From God we come, and to God we return.” Interpret that as you wish. In reference to the living, I can’t do better than come up with a cliche: think before you drive, and don’t let your attention wander while you’re in the middle of driving, either. Wait until you get home before you do. As my mother used to say, “Better that they should say that ‘Irfan Khawaja is late’ than that they should refer to ‘The late Irfan Khawaja.'” Mom had a point–and trust me, that’s not the kind of concession I make lightly. I had to learn it from hard, painful experience. Spare yourself the agony.
*The four best things I’ve come across: Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do and What It Says About Us is a nice general introduction to the subject; Leonard Evans’s Traffic Safety and the Driver and Traffic Safety focus specifically on traffic safety; and W. Kip Viscusi’s Pricing Lives: Guideposts for a Safer Society, though not focused exclusively on traffic safety, has a clear discussion of the topic, along with a crystal-clear discussion of the monetization of mortality risk generally. Dr. Evans’s website, Science Serving Society, is a treasure-trove of material, not just on traffic issues, but on COVID-19.
For those who may somehow have missed the musical allusion in the title of this post.
I made a few additions and corrections to this post after the original posting here at PoT. Thanks to all the people who commented on the first draft I posted on Facebook, whether to offer encouragement or sympathy, or to share some heart-rending stories of their own: Fahmi Abboushi, William Elliot Byrd, Rawan Dajani, Sheba Qureshi Dougherty, Ann Guillory, Rabia Imran, Robert Mack, Krystoff Ost, Ray Raad, Mike Sanford, Fiona Stevens, Carol Welsh, Sherida Yoder, Fawad Zakariya, and Jawad Zakariya.