Fast-Tracked for Pas­sage: Politi­cos on the Road

The Washington Post Sunday - - Style - By Srid­har Pappu

There was a time we feared only celebri­ties on our high­ways. We’d be com­ing home safely in our 1950 Ford only to get blind­sided by the likes of James Dean in his 1955 Porsche Spy­der. Or decades later, we’d be driv­ing in Con­necti­cut only to have David Let­ter­man whiz by with a po­lice car clos­ing fast.

Al­though the sight of road­ra­gin’ celebri­ties — par­tic­u­larly if they’re young and ter­ri­bly thin and have been in re­hab or mar­ried to failed rap­pers — might still be rea­son for the heart to beat faster, a new road men­ace has qui­etly arisen. For­get Brit­ney or Lind­say or Paris. Naw, they’re harm­less if, you know, they’re sober and wear­ing un­der­wear. It’s our elected of­fi­cials who now give us great pause when en­ter­ing the on-ramp.

They might come up on you sud­denly, in ei­ther a black Lin­coln Town Car or dark­ened sport ute trav­el­ing at a speed that can only be de­scribed as self-im­por­tant, or in one of those omi­nous mo­tor­cades, which dis­play a haste that needs “in­ter­sec­tion con­trol.” What they are do­ing is ex­press­ing

ex­press­ing their need for speed, one of the last perquisites of power for the pol no longer able to ac­cept the Gulf­stream lift and 18 holes at St. An­drews.

Our cho­sen rep­re­sen­ta­tives — whether they’re driv­ing or be­ing driven — are the real-life Ricky Bob­bys, treat­ing the speed limit with con­tempt. Some might say: Why shouldn’t they? Af­ter all, they’re not head­ing to Diddy’s Hamp­tons bash. They’ve got of­fi­cial stuff to at­tend to, damn it. They need to get to press brief­ings, photo-ops with char­ter-school stu­dents, or, in the case of New Jer­sey Gov. Jon Corzine, to a me­di­a­tion ses­sion be­tween for­mer ra­dio-show host Don Imus and the Rut­gers women’s bas­ket­ball team. He never got there. His Chevy Sub­ur­ban crashed on the Gar­den State Park­way while go­ing 91 mph.

“This is part of a larger pat­tern where driv­ers don’t rec­og­nize the dan­gers of speed­ing,” says Richard Ret­tings, se­nior trans­porta­tion en­gi­neer with the In­sur­ance In­sti­tute for High­way Safety. “The cul­ture of some politi­cians may be such that they think it’s okay to speed.”

Or flout the law re­quir­ing them to wear seat belts, as Corzine did.

If it’s any con­so­la­tion to the re­cov­er­ing Corzine, he’s not alone.

Af­ter the latest in a se­ries of speed­ing in­ci­dents that marked his ten­ure, New Mex­ico Gov., and Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial hope­ful, Bill Richard­son was quoted by the Santa Fe New Mex­i­can as say­ing: “I am the first to ad­mit that I try to cram as much busi­ness as pos­si­ble into each and ev­ery day. As you know, I’m im­pa­tient.” This ap­peared to be an ex­pla­na­tion for why the gov­er­nor’s ve­hi­cle re­fused to stop when flagged by an Al­bu­querque plain­clothes po­lice­man.

Af­ter a 2003 re­port in The Wash­ing­ton Post de­tail­ing Richard­son’s Flash-like need to tap into the speed force, Ralph Nader wrote to Richard­son, “You are driv­ing too fast, which makes you a dan­ger on the New Mex­i­can high­ways and a waste­ful guz­zler of en­ergy.”

Gov­er­nors are rarely the ones with the lead foot. Why, they might be so ab­sorbed in their pa­per­work they don’t rec­og­nize how quickly the scenery is fly­ing by.

Af­ter the Philadel­phia Daily News re­ported in 2004 that state troop­ers had clocked Penn­syl­va­nia Gov. Ed Ren­dell’s limou­sine trav­el­ing more than 100 mph on nine oc­ca­sions, he is­sued a state­ment: “I will be­gin to mon­i­tor the speed that I am be­ing driven.” Troop­ers told the pa­per the gov had urged them to drive that fast. In one episode, an­other trooper gave chase, un­til told over po­lice ra­dio to back off “Ex­ec­u­tive One.”

Like Corzine and Ren­dell, Richard­son was a pas­sen­ger. Richard­son’s ve­hi­cle was be­ing driven by a state po­lice driver, a mem­ber of a force that, the gov­er­nor said in the New Mex­i­can, “have been spe­cially trained in dig­ni­tary pro­tec­tion by the Se­cret Ser­vice. They have never op­er­ated the ve­hi­cle in a way that would risk the safety of me or other driv­ers on the road. I will also never ques­tion them when they be­lieve se­cu­rity is an is­sue."

Gov­er­nors’ driv­ers are state law en­force­ment of­fi­cers who are ex­pected to obey traf­fic-safety laws and not speed, ac­cord­ing to an As­so­ci­ated Press sur­vey of state travel poli­cies. Th­ese driv­ers, how­ever, are typ­i­cally per­mit­ted to speed and use flash­ers in emer­gen­cies.

And when it comes to the White House — Pres­i­dent Bush’s mo­tor­cades have been in­volved in a num­ber of ac­ci­dents over the years — Se­cret Ser­vice spokes­woman Kim Bruce says, “We don’t talk about our means and meth­ods of how we move our pro­tectees from point A to point B.”

What’s clearer are the costs of such speed. Af­ter spend­ing eight days on a ven­ti­la­tor, Corzine, as of this writ­ing, re­mains hos­pi­tal­ized, his re­lease sched­uled for to­mor­rowand his gu­ber­na­to­rial du­ties put away for the fore­see­able fu­ture. In ad­di­tion to frac­tur­ing a ver­te­bra in his lower back, Corzine broke his ster­num, col­lar­bone, left thigh­bone and 11 ribs.

“The core mes­sage of this is age-old and ap­plies just as much to­day as it did in the 1950s and ’60s,” Ret­tings says. “Speed­ing is ama­jor fac­tor in ac­ci­dents that re­sult in se­ri­ous in­jury. The speed at which a driver’s trav­el­ing in­creases the chance of be­ing in­volved in a col­li­sion and how se­vere a col­li­sion could be. At the end of the day, no­body is above the law of physics.”


New Jer­sey Gov. Jon Corzine’s ve­hi­cle af­ter he was se­ri­ously in­jured in an ac­ci­dent on April 12.

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