"We never thought it would happen to us," said Ken Nathanson of the car crash that killed his 14-year-old daughter almost five years ago.
"And many people who are reading this article wil think in the back of their minds that it's never going to happen to them or their family."
Unfortunately, said Nathanson, they have a 50-50 chance of being wrong.
The National Safety Council estimates that one out of two Americans in his or her lifetime will be involved in a highway accident that results in a death or a disabling injury, sid Nathanson. According to the federal statistics, 50,000 persons are killed each year and millions more are injured -- and many of the drivers involved have no legal licenses.
Those statistics became grim reality for the Nathansons, who live in Bethesda, while they were vacationing in New England the day after Christmas 1975. On that day Nathanson, his wife Frances, son Harlon, 12, and daughter Kamy, 14 were in the family car, which was parked on the shoulder of a Rhode Island highway. Their car was struck from the rear by a tractor-trailer.
Kamy was killed.
Nathanson and his wife were hospitalized with injuries and their son suffered minor injuries. The family tragedy started Nathanson on the path to becoming an expert and national spokesman on the problems of driver safety.
After Kamy's death, Nathanson recalls, he could not pass her room if the door ws open. He would not let his wife remove any of his daughter's things from her room. But an unexpected discovery changed all that, and a great many other things in the lives of Ken and Fran Nathanson.
Nathanson learned the driver in the crash that killed his daughter had had his license suspended several times in his home state of New Jersey, and was driving illegally on an Arizona permit at the time of the accident. Amazed that the trucker -- who Nathanson says is still on the road with no written record showing he caused Kamy's death -- had slipped by the authorities. Nathsanson dug further into the story.
He discovered loopholes and discrepancies in state laws that allow drivers to hop across state lines and obtain licenses despite terrible driving records.
He learned that, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), 10 million persons were driving illegally in 1975 (that number is now up to 14 million) and that some 21 millin persons now driving are chronic offenders.
Perhaps most frustrating, Nathanson learned there are methods for getting problem drivers off the roads -- they just haven't been adopted.
In fact, a DOT official told Nathanson, if one federal program -- the National Driver Register -- had been working properly, Kamy probably would be alive today. The register, run by DOT, is a clearing house of information on drivers who have had their licenses suspended or revoked. The problem is, many states don't check with the register before issuing licenses, and those that do sometimes have to wait weeks while the information is sent through the mail. Meanwhile, some states will issue permits, unaware that they might be putting dangerous drivers back on the roads.
"We felt that something must be done. We couldn't bring back our daughter, but we certainly could prevent thousands of deaths and maimings," said Nathanson.
When he sat out to join an organization working specifically on the problem, Nathanson found none existed. Despite government findings that more than 90 percent of highway crashes are due to driver error, he found most of the emphasis has been on improving vehicles and highways, rather than drivers.
"When I found out there was no public-interest group working on this (driver safety), I felt I had to begin, because in every issue someone has to begin," he said.
So he founded Citizens for Safe Drivers (formely called Citizens for Better Driver Records), which now has some 2,500 members and affiliate groups in more than a dozen states. He traveled across the country, lecturing and using his public-relations background to generate media coverage. He talked to highway safety professionals, both state and federal, and he lobbied on Capitol Hill. He was appointed to the Washington D.C. Traffic Safety Board, the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Laws and Ordinances and the Traffic Records Committee of the National Safety Council.
And, at some point along the way, he opened the door to Kamy's room. Gradually, he even began working there; eventually he moved out some of her furniture to make room for the volumes of information he had gathered. It became, he remebers, a way of "working through" his grief.
Nathanson's relentless prodding and pressuring have not gone unnoticed. In 1977 he persuaded Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn) to introduce in the House a bill to strengthen the National Driver Register. The bill would have allowed records to be sped to the states instantaneously through an electronic system, rather than through the mails. The House passed the bill, but a House-Senate conference committee ordered DOT to study the status of the register. Results of that study, released last month, confirmed the need for modernizing the register and credited Nathanson with being the main force behind efforts to strengthen the system. Oberstar has said he will introduce similar legislation in the next session of Congress.
"Ken Nathanson is a crusader," said Oberstar. "His leadership in the fight for highway safety is an example of citizen initative in the legislative process. Dedicated, passionate citizens can make a difference. Ken and Fran have proven that," he added.
Nathanson said his work on driver safety has only just begun. He is pushing for uniform driver laws, enforcement and terminology in all 50 states. He also would like to see blood-alcohol and/or breath tests made mandatory in all states for persons involved in serious accidents. Maryland, he pointed out, has the highest allowable blood-alcohol level in the country -- something his group is working to change. He is also working to get drunken drivers, who cause 50 percent of all accidents, off the roads.
"If citizens had worked before, many people who died in the '70s would still be here," said Nathanson. "We feel only when the public gets actively involved will there be continuing, significant improvements. If the public wants to forget about it, they can be positive that the number of deaths and injuries will continue to increase.
For information on Citizens for Safe Drivers, call 469-6588 or 393-6664.