Saturday, June 30, 2007

A terrible way to die

Pulitzer-prize winning author David Halberstam was killed in a car crash in April in Menlo Park, California. He was being driven by a 26-year-old graduate student from the University of Berkeley when the student made a left turn in front of oncoming traffic. The older Toyota Camry the student was driving was struck on the right side of the passenger compartment where Mr. Halberstam, 73, was sitting. Halberstam died at the scene; the student suffered a punctured lung and the driver of the other car had only minor injuries.

Now the facts of the crash have been established. The crash occurred at the intersection of the Bayfront Expressway and Willow Road, just west of the Dumbarton Bridge across lower San Francisco Bay. The driver of the other car had a green light and was proceeding toward the bridge straight through the intersection. The graduate student, driving the opposite direction on the expressway, was facing two left turn lanes which had a red arrow, indicating of course that no left turn could legally be made at that moment. The student though was in the third lane from the left, a through lane coming from the bridge. Instead of going straight, however, the student made what possibly was a last-second left turn toward Willow Road, placing the Camry on a collision course with the oncoming late-model Infiniti, driven by a 64-year-old man.

From what I recall reading earlier, the graduate student had two prior driving convictions. He may have been a habitually careless driver, or perhaps he was so excited by the prospect of ferrying Mr. Halberstam that he wasn't paying enough attention to the driving task. Regardless, Mr. Halberstam had to pay a terrible price, and we as a society lost a gifted author who was still very much active. On the day of the crash, he was on his way to an interview for a book he was planning about the famous 1958 NFL championship football game between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts.

There is a chance that the outcome might have been different if the Camry had been a 2002 or later model equipped with better side structure plus head- and chest-protecting side airbags. I have not seen photos of the damaged Camry to judge if such an outcome may have been possible.

The graduate student faces a charge of vehicular manslaughter, which carries a penalty of up to $1000 in fines and one year in jail. The Infiniti driver was not charged.

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