Malicious intent or not, 3500-pound weapon
With that, Sgt. Brannan begins morning traffic school, as he has done more than 50 times by his estimation. He also succinctly emphasizes the gravity of the situation and responsibility incumbent on all drivers, and figuratively kicks the chair legs out from under the barely-awake attendees of the Saturday morning class.
The class, formally called the Garden City Driver Safety and Education Course, promotes a safe driving environment through public education and safety awareness. Improving highway safety also is one of ITD’s core missions.
By paying the fine and completing the course, those with minor traffic infractions do not accrue points on their drivers record and nothing is reported to insurance, which makes it a popular alternative.
I am one of 18 people in the class that day, one of three classes offered that month. Sgt. Brannan estimates that more than 5,000 people have gone through the class in its three years.
He often volunteers to teach the class.
“I love to talk to people and to teach,” he explained. “To pass along what I know and my experiences.”
As a veteran of 21 years of police work with a father who put in 28 years with the state police and an uncle who did 32 years on the force, Sgt. Brannan has seen the destructive power of a vehicle (car, truck and motorcycle) unleashed too many times. He has an almost-imperceptible hitch in his step as a reminder of that destructive power. When on motorcycle patrol a few years ago, he was on the receiving end of punishment doled out by a young male driver who failed to see him in time.
“I had to choose between trying to get out of the way of this vehicle at the last second but exposing myself to a broadside hit by doing that, or turning my cycle and facing the car head-on in the impact, but putting the cycle between me and the car by doing it.”
He chose the head-on impact, and has a 3-percent loss of mobility in his left leg as a result of the impact. He also has a metal plate and six screws in his ankle from that encounter.
By contrast, though, a broadside hit could have been much more devastating.
“On average, distractions - cell phones, cameras, the radio dial, mp3 players, makeup, shavers, magazines – deplete your concentration by 37 percent, which is worse than drunk driving,” he said.
Garden City has a population of about 12,000 residents. However, city streets are clogged with about 163,000 vehicle trips on the average weekday as people travel through town to reach jobs in nearby Boise and Meridian.
It was just such a situation a few years back that Sgt. Brannan recalls, where a young female driver on her way to work took her eyes off the road for just a second to change the dial on her radio, at the same time as the driver of an oncoming car looked down to move a cup of coffee. Consequently, both drivers drifted into the path of the other, it was a high-speed collision, and a horrendous crash resulted.
Drivers on the freeway are faced with hundreds of visual images that help us make about 40 decisions per minute. At freeway speed, the margin for error is very slim.
“You close your eyes for a second and you drive the length of a football field blindfolded,” he said.
Many of those decisions are inconsequential, and we make them without incident.
However, when the wrong decisions are made, they start to add up, then snowball, and the results can be downright tragic.
When a crash is the final product, bad decisions are usually the main ingredient.
Sgt. Brannan relayed a story about a young man on a motorcycle with another young man riding on the seat behind him.
“So he opens up the throttle and speeds up, but he can’t make the corner and ends up launching the rider behind him into a tree, which snaps his neck and kills him instantly. Neither of them was wearing a helmet, and the driver was in bad shape too. The paramedics get to the scene and bring him back to life three or four times. He dies on the way to the hospital.”
“I opened up his wallet to identify him, and there’s the receipt for the motorcycle from just two days before. Along with that is a receipt for a ring. He was going to get married in six months.”
The family had the motorcycle rebuilt and donated it to the STARS program, he said. “The first time I rode it was a little surreal,” said Sgt. Brannan, “but I think the family realized it would be very effective in getting the safety message across to young riders.”
Traveling one mile at 55 mph instead of 65 mph will cost you 10 seconds, but it may prevent a crash because it now takes almost 80 fewer feet to come to a stop. As the speed increases on a heavy machine, it requires exponentially more and more time and distance to stop. A drag racer at 230 mph, for example, requires more than half a mile to come to a complete stop. By contrast, if a semi-truck could go that fast, it would need much more real estate.
Clearly, whether you’re behind the controls of a motorcycle or behind the wheel of a car, you’re in command of a heavy weapon with significant safety implications. In that situation, “patience and wisdom are worth their weight in gold,” Sgt. Brannan said.