Driving home a point

MAYBE IT IS a "dad thing," but while reading news accounts of Princess Diana's death, I focused on the driving. The stories of the auto accident that killed the Princess of Wales, her companion, Dodi Fayed, and the driver, Henri Paul, struck me as examples of macho driving, the kind of bad behavior dads warn their sons about.

After reading stories of the fatal crash in the Paris tunnel, I found myself thinking about the importance of staying in control at the wheel and of using good judgment. All these are points in the "dad lecture," the speech that fathers give their offspring about good driving.


Right off is the fact that the driver of the car carrying Princess Di was drunk. This bad behavior flies in the face of all kinds of advice given to new drivers. These days there is a chorus of voices, in addition to dads', warning new drivers about the dangers of alcohol. Every kid who takes a driver's education class hears that alcohol makes you think you are a better driver than you really are. That alcohol gives you a false sense of confidence, a feeling that you can beat the odds.

The driver in Paris was no kid. He was a 41-year-old man who had been called into work on his day off. He probably thought he could "hold his liquor," could handle any driving situation, that the rules applied to somebody else. When he entered that tunnel, he found out he was wrong.


The Mercedes-Benz that carried Princess Di and her companions was speeding. It was being pursued by photographers, some on motorcycles. Just how fast the car was traveling has not been nailed down. The initial reports that the car was traveling more than 100 mph now seem to be wrong. But it appears that the car was going well above the 30 mph speed limit in the tunnel where the accident occurred. It was certainly going too fast to maintain control. It swerved to avoid hitting another vehicle -- maybe a slower-moving car or a paparazzi motorcycle that had cut in front of it. The Mercedes hit a pillar, flipped and smashed into a tunnel wall.

It could be that Fayed and Paul were incited by the antics of the photographers and flew into a fit of road rage. The report that a "decoy vehicle" had been dispatched earlier in the night to fool the photographers makes me suspect that pride played a part in the evening's events.

It sounds to me like a game of "catch me if you can" was being played with car and motorcycles. It made me wonder if this was just one deadly episode of a game that had been played many times before. Playing games with cars or losing your temper behind the wheel, according to the dad lecture, is a dangerous business.

It also seems likely to me that cockiness could have played a part in this auto accident. One report said Paul had dared the photo- graphers to catch him. He had received some training in high- speed-driving maneuvers. He was behind the wheel of a Mercedes- Benz S280, a car designed to give passengers good protection in the event of a collision. Paul might have thought that thanks to his experience and his vehicle, he could take big risks. But driving good "metal" is no replacement for displaying "good judgment."

This week, I tried to make these points to my sons. One is already driving, the other is still a few years away. I gave the dad lecture. It was part of an attempt to draw some meaning, some lesson from this heavily publicized auto accident.

The kids' blase reaction reminded me that the dad lecture is probably given as much for the benefit of the dad as it is for his offspring. It is also easier to give the lecture than abide by its points.

My view of how things played out that night in Paris is a dad's view. It is an admittedly simplistic one. A couple were out on a date. They were hassled by some low-lifes. Tempers flared, the accelerator was floored. Today we have a funeral.

The back pages of newspapers regularly carry stories about people killed in auto accidents where a driver was going too fast, or got mad, or had too much to drink. But this instance is different. This story is on the front page because it happened to Princess Di, a woman much of the world loved.


And today, a mother is buried and her young sons are mourning.

Pub Date: 9/06/97