Who will perish in Berks next?

By Jeffrey Fazio
DriveTime Columnist

The population of Berks County is nearly 400,000. Imagine for a moment that it was possible for all of us to sit in the stands at the Sovereign Center. Resting in the middle of the room are rows of guns. Let's say there was exactly one gun for each of us, but only 79 of the guns were loaded. What if we were all expected to pick up just one gun, point it at ourselves and pull the trigger?

Would you have a problem doing that? The chances are only 79 in 400,000 that things would go badly.

What if we took the 400,000 residents of Berks to the top floor of the County Services Center and there was exactly one elevator for each of us to get back down, but 79 of the elevators had no cables to control the fall? Would you hesitate getting in your elevator?

These scenarios sound like twisted variations of Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery," but with the bonus of 78 more "winners." Surely none of us (I hope) would want to participate in such a morbid game of chance, but the fact is most of us do just that every day. We roll the proverbial dice every time we interact with our streets and highways.

In the situations I described, the number of fated was set 79. That was no coincidence. 79 lives were lost on Berks County roadways last year. 79 -- that sounds like a lot to me. Maybe it is not a huge number. It is, after all, less than two-thousandths of 1 percent of our population, but how many other lives were forever changed by these deaths? How many people were seriously injured in accidents, but did not perish?

79 deaths is almost one death every five days. If the average held out, that would indicate at least one fatal accident every week in our county. Again, that seems like a lot to me.

Last year I followed the growing statistics of the traffic-death toll as reported by Keith Mayer in the Reading Eagle and his blog on www.readingeagle.com. He indicated that 2005 tied the record for the most fatalities in Berks County. I sure hope that is not an indication of what is to come. With barely three weeks into the new year, we already had three traffic deaths recorded as of Jan. 20. If that pace keeps up, we could be looking at a bit more than 52 for this year.

Mayer's statistics frequently seep into my thoughts as I endure my 45-minute commute to and from work each day. In fact, last year I passed by a rather disturbing one-car accident one particularly stormy day and found out later that the driver had perished. It really hit home for me when I read the news the next day and I realized I drove by someone who was no longer with us.

In the last 60 years, the lowest number of fatal accidents in a given year in Berks was 36 in 1960. Considering we have lost three people already this year and that it is not probable that this year will set a new record low, it seems that at least 33 more people will not see 2007. Statistics, and reality, can really be creepy at times.

Now when I drive around Berks, I find myself looking around at the other drivers and wondering who will be next. Who will perish? Will it be the woman in the white Chrysler 300M, chatting on her cell phone, who went speeding by me the other morning on Route 61? Maybe it will be the guy in the black Ford pickup truck, who last week pulled out from Route 419 onto Route 183, right in front of me. He barely gave me enough time to avoid him. That one was too close -- at least for me.

As improbable as it is, I hope the new year offers a lot less close calls (or worse) for all of us. Maybe we can all chip in for a giant billboard that reads, " ____ days accident free in Berks County!"

Have a safe new year, everyone.