Corzine crash spotlights SUV safety

No matter who was to blame, the New Jersey governor's serious accident raises questions about auto safety. Fortune's Alex Taylor III assesses the damage.

By Alex Taylor III, Fortune senior editor

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- When the story first came out, the only appropriate response was sympathy. Jon Corzine, the well-regarded governor of New Jersey and former co-CEO of Goldman Sachs (Charts, Fortune 500), was critically injured last week in an accident on the Garden State Parkway. He was flown by helicopter to a hospital in Camden with a broken leg, collarbone, a dozen ribs, and other injuries.

The initial description of the incident steered the blame away from Corzine and focused attention on another driver. According to newspaper reports based on accounts by authorities, the Chevy Suburban in which Corzine was riding hit a guardrail on the parkway after swerving to avoid another driver in a red pickup truck who was pulling off the shoulder. Corzine was thrown from the front seat of the vehicle into the back seat and badly beaten up.

But almost immediately, facts began to trickle out that indicated this was more than a case of bad luck. Indeed, Corzine's accident could become a case study for what not to do in a car. A high profile accident like this one - regardless of who is at fault - is likely to focus attention again on the issue of automobile safety, and whether automakers are doing enough to keep drivers and passengers safe.

Fact Number One: Why was Corzine thrown around the inside of the vehicle? Simple - he wasn't wearing a seat belt. "It was not his habit," said a former aide, Scott Kisch, to Newsday. Kisch was Corzine's driver when he served in the U.S. Senate. "You had to tell him if you wanted him to wear it. I gave up early on."

Not wearing a seat belt happens to be a violation of New Jersey state law. It is also beyond stupid. I won't drive down my driveway to the mailbox without buckling up.

Fact Number Two: Corzine was going too fast - way too fast. When originally questioned about the accident, Corzine's driver, a state trooper, had told investigators he didn't know how fast he was driving. A state police official added that speed was "not a factor" in the accident. But a crash data recorder in the Suburban told another story. It turns out that Corzine was leading a two-car caravan with emergency lights flashing that was going down the road at 91 miles per hour. The speed limit on the parkway is 65 mph.

Where's the fire?

If you or I had been pulled over by a trooper going 91 mph it is hard to imagine what a reasonable answer would be to the question, "Where are you going in such a hurry?" Turns out Corzine didn't have one either. He was heading to a meeting between disgraced radio host Don Imus and the Rutgers women's basketball team. Important? Yes. Worth endangering your life for? Probably not. In fact, if Corzine had been traveling at a mere 60 mph, he would have had so much time that he would have beaten the basketball players there.

Fact Number Three: The state police driver had been involved in four - count 'em, four - previous accidents, two while on duty. One hopes that Corzine selects better-qualified people for other state jobs.

Fact Number Four: Police caught up with the driver of that red pickup they said caused the accident. But it turns out he wasn't responsible. He had pulled over the side of the road to make way for Corzine's motorcade, its lights blaring. When he swerved back on the road, another pickup truck behind him swerved to avoid hitting him, and collided with the Suburban. The driver of the second truck wasn't to blame, either.

Concluded the New York Times, from which much of this account was gleaned: "It now seems clear that Mr. Corzine's own vehicle was responsible for the crash."

Lingering questions

There are some other questions to be answered about the accidents, such as why neither the front nor the side passenger airbags deployed. VIPs ride around in SUVs because they think they are safe. If they are less safe than they think, then the manufacturers should explain why.

Although Corzine is improving, he is still too weak to answer questions about the accident. But as couple of observations - about driving and life - seem warranted: One, wear your seat belt at all times, even if it is inconvenient. God won't always protect the stupid. Two, don't drive recklessly, even if you have the state police at your command and use a trooper as your driver. Three, get all the facts out fast in an accident. They may hurt, but if they dribble out later, they will hurt a lot more.  Top of page