For those readers who remember Jayne Mansfield, or even know who she was, this is not a story about her Hollywood exploits or bedroom acrobatics. It is a story about a common type of accident – a rear-ender involving an automobile striking a truck or bus – often referred to, in accident reconstruction circles, as “the Jayne Mansfield syndrome.”
Decades ago, at the heart of her stardom, Ms. Mansfield’s chauffeur was cruising along, perhaps a bit too closely, behind a large truck. When the truck stopped more quickly than her chauffer’s vehicle could, her car rear-ended it, submarined beneath it, and its body sliced off the top of her head. Unlike car-to-car, truck-to-truck, bus-to-bus or bus-to-truck rear-enders, an ugly anomaly occurs when a car strikes a much larger vehicle. The primary culprit of this glaring mismatch is referred to as bumper misalignment.
Because bumper misalignment is so profoundly dangerous, it is actually illegal. Of course, its illegality is completely ignored by virtually every bus and truck manufacturer, which effectively makes its illegality pointless, just as thousands of other illegal acts still “on the books” are ignored, as perhaps some of them should be. Particularly within the school bus community, bumper alignment between school buses and automobiles is enthusiastically, albeit tacitly, embraced – one of that transportation community’s darkest, dirtiest secrets. This is because while hundreds of motorists are beheaded or vegetized each year when their automobiles rear end school buses, the bumper misalignment makes these collisions barely noticeable to the little darlings who rarely feel a jolt because their vehicle’s raised bumper helps the vehicle’s dramatically superior mass to absorb most of the impact forces.
Rear Ending: Fault and Mythology
Like much mythology, the notion that the driver in the rear is always at fault – a notion codified in most if not all state’s police regulations – is a dangerous illusion, beyond being pure nonsense:
A school bus driven by an erratic driver who often missed the particular stop-in-question suddenly engaged his amber flashers, began braking severely, and started to pull off the roadway. A medium-duty truck following closely behind managed to swerve around it, suddenly exposing the automobile directly behind the truck to the large, rear cap of the school bus. The motorist assumed that the bus would continue to pull off the roadway – as state regulations required it to – and she depressed her brakes with sufficient force to stop her car before striking it – had the bus actually done so. Unfortunately, the bus stopped with its tail midpoint in the single travel lane, and unable to stop quickly enough for this aberration, the motorist’s car smashed into the rear of it, and the resulting collision beheaded her sister positioned in the shotgun seat.
While the defendant’s counsel began his client’s defense with the mythology that the vehicle in the rear was to blame, as state regulations stated, and further that two sets of conflicting state regulations required engagement of the amber flashers at a minimum of 100 and 200 feet, respectively, some digging on my part uncovered language in that state’s driver certification standards requiring school bus drivers traveling on high-speed roadways to engage their ambers at least 300 feet before the intended stop. In contrast, a multitude of eyewitnesses estimated that the bus driver engaged his amber flashers less than 75 feet before the bus came to a stop halfway in the travel lane.
As a consequence of the caveat about amber engagement on high-speed roadways, every school bus driver in that state presumably read this requirement before his or her certification was granted. Combining the driver-in-question’s failure to comply with this caveat with the fact that the bus pulled only partly off the roadway (another illegality), much less that a large-diameter, circular turnabout immediately adjacent to the stop depicting a plethora of tire tread markings could have accommodated the bus pulling even off the shoulder altogether, I and my counsel had little trouble extracting a meaty settlement from the defendant and its insurance carrier. Mythology can take you only so far.
Defensive Driving and Universality
One of the five cardinal principles of the “Smith System,” an increasingly common and, in some ways, brilliant approach to defensive driving, is “Make sure they [i.e., fellow motorists] see you.” An obvious corollary is that “they” often will. So it is incumbent upon any driver – particularly one operating a vehicle of heavy mass with a highly-aligned bumper – to make certain that when his or her vehicle is seen, it is seen where it is supposed to be, and that it is seen soon enough for the vehicle behind it to avoid running into it. This is not a school bus principle. It is not even a bus principle. It is a plain old, simple, down home driving principle.
In the particular incident cited above, this principle was enlightening largely because it illustrates the folly of relying on both mythology (a kind word for this particularly mythology given its naiveté and recklessness) and regulations for safety. Particularly in the courtroom, or in activities leading up to it, such mythology may be easily exposed, and those abusing the liberties and impunity it would seem to afford a thoughtless driver will likely pay dearly for relying upon it.
Put more bluntly, just because you are driving the vehicle in front does not relieve you from the responsibilities you owe to motorists following behind or alongside you. This is partly what mirrors are for. But it is more about what judgment is for. It also proves another critical point about driving safety: There is really no such thing as having the right-of-way. Whether you do depends a great deal on the details. Yet even when you do have the right-of-way, bad things can still happen to you and other motorists and pedestrians, much less to your passengers. If this must be spelled out with crayons, think about your full, 57-passenger motorcoach being rear-ended by a fully-loaded 18-wheeler, with double your vehicle’s mass, and which requires even more distance to stop at a given speed than your coach. Do you honestly think that your coach full of now-crippled passengers really care whose fault it was?
In a tune of the same name, Sinatra once crooned, “It’s so nice to go travelin’.” But the song concludes with the phrase, “but its oh, so nice to come home.” If you are a true professional driver, make sure that you think about all the little things that will help your passengers accomplish this latter goal. As I have said many times in NBT articles and elsewhere, most accidents are not caused by things you do not know. They are caused by things you do not see. So it was not such a bad idea for the first sentence of the first book you probably ever read to begin with the phrase, “See Sally run.”