Gary Horton | Too Close to Traffic Tragedy


The sun and the breeze were refreshing and beautiful, flowing through the palms, dancing on the water – all passing by his windshield on a picture-perfect Autumn day on the Ventura Coast. The driver in the small sports car was happy to be on the road, taking it in.

Days like this don’t come often. It had been a gloomy summer along the coast, and now, finally, things were brightening up.

The driver smiled appreciatively at the attractive scenery. He glanced left toward the ocean, marveling at the calmness of the sea despite the breeze on the beach.

He was surprised at the strawberry crops to his right.

“Strawberries,” he pondered, don’t grow until spring. But row after row of small red berries proved him wrong as he sped along the oceanfront road.

There were many distractions along the oceanside road that day.

The beach where he’d so often taken his kids to play 25 years ago. Memories of laughter and squeals and running and hugs filled his view as cherished moments replayed in his mind’s eye.

He saw the bicycles pedaling along the beach pathways. And sailboats, lit up by the afternoon sun, caught his attention, as he considered how they maneuvered the harbor in the wind with sails unfurled.

And his cellphone. He knew checking his phone was unwise and illegal, but “habits are hard to break,” he thought. Every few minutes the driver glanced down to check his phone screen.

“So much of my life is on that phone,” he mused. Mail, photos, friends, directions – it was so easy to look at that screen.

The road rises unexpectedly as you approach Ventura Pier, limiting view of the upcoming traffic. There’s a lot happening on this stretch of road. Restaurants to the left, action on the pier, and a plaza where vendors rent bicycles and pedal carts.

There’s a pedestrian bridge to the right where beachgoers cross the freeway to the pier.

But none of this comes to view until the road completes its rise and leftward turn.

The driver was looking left toward the pier when he first noticed the upcoming crosswalk from the corner of his eye.

It came up without notice, and the car was moving much too fast at the approach.

A man and two women crossing on the left stepped back up to the curb. Beachgoers on the right by the bridge stopped short of the road and stared at the speeding car.

Directly ahead in the crosswalk, a young mother holding her young child’s hand looked up at the driver with intense surprise.

So close, the driver saw the mother’s face, eyes and her disbelief at his approaching car. Mother and child could not move fast enough to get out of the way of the car.

“Hit the brakes!” reacted the stunned driver, and the small sports car stopped short feet from the mother and child.

Safe, all safe.

It all came so quickly. The beach memories, the harbor, the people and vendors in the plaza – and an unexpected crosswalk out of view above the rise of the road filled with beachgoers enjoying the autumn day.

The mother, now just a few feet from the driver’s windshield, amazingly smiled a “thanks for stopping” smile, without apparent anger. She paused and smiled and continued to the plaza.

The stunned driver cowered inwardly as the balance of pedestrians crossed in front, some peering into his car with indignation.

“He could have killed them,” many must have thought, and they were right.

Still stopped at the crosswalk, the driver saw the mother fall to her knees at the plaza, hugging her daughter closely. She had just recognized how closely she and her daughter had come to true tragedy. The driver saw them and felt intense guilt and shame – and relief that he had not caused such harm.

Too close.

Too close, and had the small car not stopped quickly, all would be changed for the mother, child and the driver. Any closer, and suffering and perhaps death for the young family.

Manslaughter and prison for the driver. Investigators would check the cellphone and see it was used just prior to the accident. Convictions would certainly come. So much would be lost and the suffering on both sides would overwhelm.

All because of simple distractions. Because of simple, bad habits. Because of not living in the moment, and the moment of driving is driving the car carefully, without allowing distraction to interfere with safe driving.

The driver that day was me.

But it could just as easily have been you — or anyone else. By grace, I avoided causing a tragedy with limitless anguish and pain. I will never drive inattentively again. I am completely chastised at my irresponsibility that day behind the wheel.

We all have driven inattentively at one time or another. Distracted driving maims tens of thousands annually.

Perhaps you can also learn from my humbling lesson?

Gary Horton is a Santa Clarita resident. His column, “Full Speed to Port!” appears Wednesdays in The Signal. This week, he is on vacation. This column originally ran in November 2010, and it is as valid today as it was then.

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