The Perfect Accident
Distracted driving is no laughing matter -- just ask Tareena Horton. On Valentine's Day in 2009, the Breckinridge County resident learned first-hand just how quickly an innocent distraction can turn into a life-altering event.
Have you ever watched a stoplight change from red to green, only to have the blissfully unaware driver in front of you remain idle? Have you ever seen a driver drifting across lanes on the highway before suddenly jerking his or her car back into place? Have you ever realized that the driver behind you is looking at everything but the road? Have you ever been that driver?
Unfortunately, these examples of distracted driving have become all too common on Kentucky roadways. Twenty years ago, drunk driving was the main social ill you had to watch for on the road. Today, it’s the ever-increasing population of unalert drivers, impaired by a menagerie of attention-stealing tasks and technologies.
We’ve all witnessed distracted driving, and, if we’re being honest with ourselves, we’ve probably all been distracted drivers at some point or another. While most of us have gotten away with these moments of inattention, the scary reality is that one second can mean the difference between an insignificant distraction and a life-altering disaster.
On a chilly Valentine’s Day morning in 2009, Breckinridge County resident Tareena Horton learned exactly what a difference a second can make.
“To say that I was preoccupied, that would hit it good,” Horton said of that day.
After a hectic morning of getting her family fed and dressed, Horton loaded her daughters, Sydne and Lily — who were then nine years old and five months, respectively — into the family’s Chevy Blazer for what was meant to be an hour and a half trip to check out a new vehicle. With Sydne in the front seat and Lily in the back, Horton set out on the road, failing to buckle-up in her haste. The family’s anticipated cross-county journey would last less than five minutes.
“I wasn’t sure where I was going, and I was trying to get my husband to explain to me my directions,” Horton said. “I took my phone and I said goodbye, and I threw it, but it went under the seat. And when it went under the seat, just for a second I looked down, and when I did, I left the road.”
Horton attempted to regain control of her vehicle, but she ended up over-correcting.
“I had one hand on the wheel and the other hand against Sydne, and she was screaming,” Horton explained. “And I said, ‘It’s okay, we’re okay.’ All of the sudden, the vehicle just barrel-rolled.”
The police report would later indicate that Horton’s vehicle “went into a skid and overturned at least two times before coming to rest on the opposite side of the roadway partially in a grass field.” Describing the entire accident in just five brief sentences, the report ended with “the driver of unit #1 was ejected from the vehicle.”
For Horton, however, the experience was much more vivid.
“I know that it probably happened in two or three seconds,” Horton said, “but it felt like a lifetime because so many thoughts went through my head. I remember telling Sydne it was going to be okay. I remember seeing my hands leave the wheel of the car and feeling my body start going through the air. I remember seeing earth and sky as I was tumbling — the light and the dark and the sound of the crunching metal. And I remember, as soon as I realized what was going on, I just started praying. And I prayed to God not to take me, over and over, because there was no one here to take care of my babies.”
To this day, Horton still has no idea exactly how she came out of the vehicle. The destructive impact of the accident busted out the front driver and passenger-side windows, and a small hole was punched through the windshield. Somehow, through all this wreckage, Horton was cleanly ejected from the vehicle, landing in an upright seated position, propped against the back tire of the car.
Incredibly, Horton was able to get up and check on her girls — both completely unharmed — before the pain made it impossible for her to stay standing. This pain, Horton would later learn, came from the five fractures in her pelvis — an agonizing but completely fixable injury with no long-term effects.
Horton may never know precisely how the ejection transpired, but she does believe she knows how she survived.
“When I was praying,” Horton explained, “do you know how a cat holds a kitten by the nape of the neck? I felt that. I felt somebody or something — and I do believe it was God — hold me up and put me down so that I could stay here and be with my family.”
Horton believes this divine intervention allowed her and her daughters to walk away from the accident with no lasting impacts.
“I had no doubt in my mind that as soon as I started praying, God heard me,” Horton said. “And he made it so that I didn’t land under the car. I didn’t land in a position where I broke my neck. He let me live, and he let me continue with my standard of living that I already had, but he gave me an understanding that everything you have can be taken away from you in a second.”
The devastating toll of distracted driving
This lesson is one that far too many Kentuckians have had to learn the hard way. Distracted driving was noted as a factor in 59,400 collisions on Kentucky’s roadways in 2016. That same year, driver distraction contributed to 192 fatalities across the Bluegrass State.
Kentucky State Police Trooper Robert Purdy is all too familiar with the devastating impact of distracted driving. To Trooper Purdy, Horton’s story is nothing short of miraculous.
“Over the past twelve years as a Kentucky State Trooper, I have responded to multiple collisions involving an occupant that was ejected,” Trooper Purdy said. “It has been my experience that an ejected occupant rarely survives a collision. When I typically hear that there has been a collision with an ejection, I anticipate working a fatal collision with the coroner at the scene.”
Horton knows the statistics, and she knows just how lucky she is to be here today with her family.
“My experience with the car wreck has given me the insight of how quickly something can happen and your whole life can get turned upside down,” Horton said. “It may have been one inch, one second, and I wouldn’t have been with my family. People don’t see their own mortality, but with the accident, I saw mine.”
The accident flipped Horton’s world upside down, and she cites the recovery process as being one of the lowest points of her life. Still, Horton believes she had to go through this experience to fully grasp the value of all the blessings she had been given in life. The accident changed Horton’s perspective on life and what’s truly important. Today, she uses her changed perception and story to help educate others about the dangers of distracted driving.
Changing for the better
“The collision could have been entirely avoided had the driver been solely focused on the act of driving,” Trooper Purdy explained. “Distractions are not going away, and with the age of users becoming younger and younger, we will have to find better ways of instilling responsible usage of technology, especially while driving. Most drivers agree that distracted driving is extremely dangerous, however, far too many still allow themselves to become distracted while behind the wheel.”
Distracted driving has become the new drunk driving that plagued America decades ago, and the only way that we can eliminate this danger is to respond just as we did to drunk driving. We need to create a society that does not accept distractedness behind the wheel. Regardless of who you are, speak up if the person behind the wheel is distracted. If you’re the one driving, hold yourself to the same standard. We live in a fast-paced, hyperconnected society, and with every ding, whistle, chime, or vibration, we’re almost physically programmed to respond. While it’s hard to resist this urge, we must change our programming and remind ourselves that it can always wait. After all, not everyone is so lucky to have the perfect accident like Horton.
“I have a perspective now that I could have never had any other way besides something like this happening, and I’m thankful for that,” Horton said. “I get wrapped up, just like everyone else does, but then I stop myself and become present again. I’m very thankful for what I have, knowing how close I came to everything being completely different.”
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To learn more about distracted driving’s prevalence in the Bluegrass State, click here.