Buckle Up Before You Start Up
MASTER SGT. MILTON I. LEACH
Northern Regional Medical Command
Walter Reed Army Medical Center
It was a chilly 28 F when I headed off to work at Ireland Community Hospital on Fort Knox, Kentucky. During good weather, it typically took me 30 minutes to cover the 18 miles from my home in Elizabethtown. However, it had snowed overnight, so I knew it was going to take me much longer than usual. What I didn’t know was it would take me 2.5 hours to reach the hospital and, when I did, I’d be in the back of an ambulance.
That morning, I got into my car and buckled up — as is my normal habit — and cautiously drove toward Fort Knox on U.S. Route 31. The snow was about 3 inches thick, and even more was piled alongside the highway from the road-clearing operations. I kept my speed down to 15 mph until I reached Old Fort Knox Road. I then turned onto the road, which ran straight about 30 feet before transitioning into a lazy S turn that sloped downhill for a half mile.
Although there was very little snow on Old Fort Knox Road, I continued to drive cautiously. I was unaware, however, that there was a sheet of black ice covering the road beneath the snow. My car suddenly began sliding and twice I swerved back and forth across the road, trying to regain control. Nothing I did helped, and I went off the right shoulder, down a slope and into a ravine.
As my car began to overturn, I started praying. After rolling four times, my car came to rest on its wheels and water flowed through every opening. I was scared, but at least I was alive and able to move.
I unhooked my seat belt and attempted to get out of the car, but the door was jammed. I tried again to push it open, but the door wouldn’t budge. Still scared, I climbed out through a window and found myself standing chest deep in very cold water. The top of my car had smashed down and the windshield, rear window and side windows were all broken out. I couldn’t see the trunk or hood, as both were underwater.
It was still dark and the roads were empty. No one had witnessed the accident and my calls for help went unheard and unanswered. I tried to climb out of the ravine but kept slipping because the sides were covered with ice and snow. Not only was I scared, I was also in pain.
Using my cellphone, I called 911 and explained the situation and requested help. I then called the operating room, knowing one of my on-call technicians would be there. I told them I’d run off the road and needed help. Ultimately, the fire department and emergency medical technicians arrived on scene. After a brief rescue operation, I was put on a stretcher, given a neck brace and taken to the hospital in the back of an ambulance.
After a complete examination, the doctor diagnosed me with a bruised left shoulder (from the seat belt). Although I was in a lot of pain, I was alive and fortunate not to have broken any bones or suffered any serious cuts or a concussion. My car was destroyed, but I had survived. The ambulance crew, firefighters and doctors were astonished that my injuries weren’t worse and attributed that to my seat belt use.
That morning, my seat belt saved my life — of that, I am sure. Had I been unbelted, I could have been injured or lost consciousness as my car rolled and been unable to escape when it flooded. Some people are afraid to wear seat belts — scared they will be trapped inside their car if it goes into the water. I found out the opposite was true. Because of my seat belt, I was able to escape and survive.
I never put my car in gear without first buckling up and making sure my passengers do so too. I learned that cold morning what a difference seat belts can make in a rollover accident. The bottom-line message is simple — buckle up before you start up. Take care of safety first!