Jerry Collins’ fatal accident is a stark reminder that there’s one form of sudden death to which we’re all susceptible.
We think of death on the roads as something that happens to other people. But when that other person is someone we feel we know, it rams home the reality that we’re all in harm’s way out there.
Road fatalities occupy an odd, contradictory place in the culture. On one hand, they’re background noise, a staple of the daily news that we skip over or fast forward through. Then something like this reminds us that death on the roads is random and democratic and youth, fame, robust health and a sculpted torso provide little protection.
When a famous person, particularly a young one, dies in a road accident, we dwell on the banality of it: they died getting from A to B, doing what almost everybody does almost every day.
Many road accidents are malign coincidences: if only they’d gone the usual way, if only they hadn’t gone through that orange light, if only the other driver’s phone hadn’t rung at that particular moment, they wouldn’t have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Road deaths reverberate through the culture, from Lawrence of Arabia on his motorbike swerving to avoid boys on bicycles in the English countryside to John Nash, the man with the beautiful mind, thrown from a taxi on the New Jersey turnpike; from James Dean in his souped-up Porsche to Princess Diana fleeing the paparazzi in her chauffeur-driven Mercedes.
Two towering figures in modern art and thought, American artist Jackson Pollock and French writer Albert Camus, died in car accidents, while the death of Mary Jo Kopechne at Chappaquiddick in 1968 forever tarnished the Kennedy brand and probably changed the course of history.
It’s probably not surprising that many racing drivers have died on the roads, as opposed to on the track, but the circumstances vary.
In 1958 Mike Hawthorn became the first British Formula One world champion, then promptly retired having been shaken by the death in competition of a fellow driver. Six months later he was killed while racing his Jaguar against a friend’s Mercedes on the A3 Guildford bypass.
Mike Hailwood, one of the few to race cars and bikes to Grand Prix level, was on his way to get fish and chips when a truck made an illegal turn.
Hailwood, 40, had told friends he’d been warned by a South African fortune teller that he’d be killed by a truck before he turned 40.
There are socio-cultural footnotes like porn star Linda Lovelace who transformed oral sex into an endurance event cum performance art, and Dominican playboy Porfirio Rubirosa whose little black book read like the guest list for an Academy Awards after-party: Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner, Judy Garland and so on, ad nauseam. He was supposedly so well endowed that Parisian waiters referred to those ridiculously large pepper grinders as “Rubirosas.”
There are strange and bitter ironies, like Argentinean boxer Carlos Monzon, for seven years the undisputed world middleweight champion, whose long history of domestic violence culminated in an 11 year jail term for murder. He died in a road accident while on weekend furlough.
Or Buford Pusser, the youngest sheriff in Tennessee history and portrayed by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson in the movie Walking Tall. Pusser survived seven stabbings and eight shootings only to die driving his Corvette away from the county fair.
Or Gerhard Barkhorn, the second greatest fighter ace of all time, who survived 1,104 combat sorties during World War Two only to perish on an autobahn near his home. Or Fast and Furious star Paul Walker, a passenger in a Porsche travelling fast and furiously to his high performance vehicle shop.
And Camus, whose message is that there is no God, no rhyme or reason, no meaning of life and therefore life is about coming to terms with that and keeping going. He died with an unused train ticket in his pocket after accepting a last minute offer of a lift.
Collins, a poor immigrant boy who grew up hard on the meanest of Porirua’s mean streets and battled demons while becoming a sporting great and citizen of the world, would have related to Camus’ words:
To correct a natural indifference, I was placed halfway between misery and the sun. Misery kept me from believing that all was well under the sun, and the sun taught me that history wasn’t everything.