The one thing I dread
We will be burying students this week. In almost every vacation period, and at every university, students die in car accidents going home to distant towns and cities, or returning to campus for studies.
Travelling from Malmesbury in the Cape, two brothers died instantly in a car accident near Bloemfontein as they returned to their student residence. At that moment, the parents lost their only children. A student travelling from Bloemfontein to Mafikeng was also killed, on her way home to see her family. And another student, who actually lives in the city of roses, also died in an accident.
It is the only thing about my job that I dread as a university principal - to call a grieving parent to either announce the death of their child, or to express condolences. Words from a principal cannot mean much when the order of life is reversed - a parent burying a child. After 18 or more years of love, nurture and guidance, the child is gone in an instant. There were no doubt great expectations for the student; dreams and ideals must have been shared since primary school between parents and child.
There must have been tears as parents left their child in "big school" after helping to unpack bags and decorate the room in the student "res". Now the parents return, once again, to collect the clothes of their dead child from the same room - a rugby ball, a specially decorated pillow, a favourite pair of jeans, a Bible.
For poor parents there is an additional blow. The dead child is often the first in the family to go to university. As graduation approaches, plans are made for how the much-needed income from a first job might help siblings still in school or about to go to university. That first cheque would help to pay off debts accumulated by a single mother. Now, even that hope has been squashed.
My youngest brother died in a car accident. What I will never forget is the impact it had on my parents. As he put down the phone, my father dropped to his knees, embracing the family in a heartbroken prayer. He carried that burden of the loss of his baby to his grave.
What can we do as universities to at least try to lower the annual death count among our travelling students? That question preoccupied us as university leaders this past week. It is a difficult question, in part because you cannot really protect a student traveller against a drunk or dangerous driver coming from the other direction to cause a head-on crash. Parents no doubt plead with their children as they start the journey home to drive safely, especially since many of these students only recently received their driver's licences.
Perhaps we should as universities repeatedly offer travelling students simple advice before they take to the roads at the end of each semester. My late father's blunt advice saved me a couple of fender benders over the years: "Always assume the other driver is an idiot."
Simple advice could save lives, like some of the following wisdoms not always found inside driver's manuals.
Never overtake a car that is already overtaking. Never overtake behind a car that is in the process of overtaking - you might not have enough time to swing in and avoid the oncoming car. Assume the car ahead of you will overtake without looking back to see if the car behind is doing the same. Do not immediately speed off when the robot turns green for you; assume some reckless driver will jump the robot that just turned red on the other side of the four-way stop.
Do not be drawn into competition with another car for speed, even on an open road. Do not respond to provocative driving, no matter how upset you might be. Be patient behind a slow-moving truck in a single lane. Never, ever, overtake on a rise in the road. "Better late than never" sounds cheesy and out-of-date, but it is so real after a week of devastation in our student body.
At an annual intervarsity competition, let the two participating universities set up roadblocks along the main route between two cities and offer awards for safe and sober driving, while using that interruption to provide water and a short break from driving.
There must be other ideas that readers of The Times could share to make the roads safer for travelling students - and for all of us.