A car hangs over a bridge in New York City's Central Park, 1915
It is said that 42-year-old Mary Ward was the first person to die in a car accident. The manner of her death is straightforward: she was run over by a car. The intriguing note behind it is that she was run over by the steam-powered car she had just been riding in. In 1869, when there were hardly any other cars on the road, Ward fell out of the car while it was rounding a bend and landed underneath it. A wheel rolled over her and broke her neck, killing her instantly. In addition to the first traffic fatality, that might make Mary Ward the first bizarre car death on record.
Roads are far busier and a lot more dangerous nowadays. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) 37,261 died in car accidents in 2008. While that is the lowest number of traffic fatalities since 1961, it still amounts to 101 people dying every single day on U.S. roads. The NHTSA breaks the total number down into numerous categories, by which one can get a thorough assessment of how people are losing their lives behind -- and sometimes in front of -- the wheel.
We couldn't find any hard statistics, but each year among the thousands of accidents there are handfuls that defy description, making us wonder, "What were they thinking about?" All of them are tragic, but beyond that some are just a little odd, some are incredible, some are frightening, and some will make you want to say a prayer every time you get behind the wheel.
Based on the number of close calls, though, it's a little surprising that more people don't fall victim to their own eccentricities. Take Vermont resident Don Robar, who was alleged -- by his passenger -- to have smoked crack cocaine and gone for a drive, and then sped up to 80 mph and crossed the median into oncoming traffic while he was inhaling keyboard cleaner. Robar hit an oncoming car, but incredibly the only person injured was the passenger in Robar's car, the one who had tried to get him to stop.
Or the case of David, a 23-year-old German man who had a few drinks in Limbach-Oberfrohna, then got in his car and drove in the wrong lane at almost three times the speed limit. He hit an embankment in his Skoda station wagon and he and his car flew 115 feet through the air, landing in the roof of a church. Miraculously, he only suffered broken bones.
It shouldn't be surprising when alcohol or some other impairing drug is a factor in unusual auto-related fatalities. Nevertheless, in many cases it isn't drug impairment that is the specific cause of death. North Carolinian Rodney Cates lost control of his truck and crashed, and police later said "alcohol contributed to the accident." What killed Cates, however, wasn't the crash, but the truck's radio, which flew out of the dash and hit Cates in the head hard enough to kill him.
Still, there are plenty of incidents that don't involve mind-altering substances, but rather just a series of odd and ultimately fatal coincidences. A woman in Oregon, Ana Aguilar, was driving and hit 77-year-old Nora Wallis, knocking Wallis down and killing her. But the scene of the accident was a Safeway parking lot, and police determined Aguilar was only going between 2 and 3 miles an hour. Wallis didn't die from being hit, but from her head hitting the pavement.
Jacqueline Green, a 33-year-old mother in Wales, was trying out her son's go-kart for the first time. Making her way down the street at no more than 28 mph, she hit a curb and was thrown into the roadside railings where she was impaled.
A woman in Brazil, 67-year-old Marciana Silva Barcelos, was on the way to her husband's funeral. She was riding in the front seat of the hearse that was carrying his casket, and the hearse was rear-ended by another car. The impact slammed the coffin forward, crushing Barcelos and killing her instantly.
The web site Fark.com is a repository of news-of-the-weird, and of course there are more than a few bizarre car accident stories to be found. Drew Curtis, site founder, had succinct advice when asked what is the best way to avoid ending up featured in one of Fark's car-related pieces.
"They seem to mostly happen at night," said Curtis, "probably because alcohol is more likely to be a factor then. Wear a seatbelt and don't drive drunk."
Even with that, alcohol didn't appear to be a factor in the weirdest car accident death Curtis had heard of.
"I wrote a Neonatal Progress Note system for Kosair Children's hospital about 10 years ago," said Curtis. "During debugging I'd always ask if there were any special cases that the system hadn't accounted for that needed fixing. One particular one came up that still stands out: a baby was born with no mother. Somewhere on I-65 late at night a man was driving with his pregnant girlfriend when he got into an accident. The woman was cut in half, but the baby popped right out and slid into a snow bank. It was found by a couple of folks who stopped right after the accident. The real kicker here was when the guy's wife was notified of what happened."
Some people who end up passing away behind the wheel don't need any accidental help doing it, because it's what they planned on. An extraordinary case of road rage involved Serena Sutton-Smith, who drove her car into the back end of another car on the side of the road, and then didn't take her foot off the accelerator. As Sutton-Smith laid on the gas the car's front tires kept spinning, one of them disintegrated, and the sparks from the steel rim grinding against the road caused the engine to catch fire. Sutton-Smith didn't get out as the entire car caught fire, and she perished in the flames with her foot on the gas.
Gerald Mellin was another who met the end he apparently sought. After a messy divorce, the 54-year-old businessman took a rope that he kept in the trunk of his Aston Martin, tied one end to a tree and the other around his neck. He then got behind the wheel and sped off, decapitating himself.
On the other end of spectrum are people doing the innocuous things that all of us have done, and paying a hefty price when it goes fantastically wrong. Jolynn Banner was going to the car wash and needed to enter a code into the machine. She opened the door of her car to reach the pad, sticking her head out of the vehicle. Her foot came off the brake and the car rolled off. Before she could get her head back inside, her neck was crushed when it was trapped in the open door, which was being squeezed by the building.
There are times as well when the victim wasn't even in a car. Detroit resident Ray Langston's keys fell through a sewer grate. He popped the grate open and then stuck his head down the hole that was covered by the grate. His head was promptly stuck. When the water level rose in the sewer, Langston was drowned in just two feet of fetid liquid.
The unpredictable nature of so many car accidents does make it difficult to try and avoid them -- after all, that's why they're called accidents and the highly unlikely circumstances are what make them bizarre. All are tragic, more than a few were avoidable and none of them will be forgotten.