The first time I went to Connecticut, as an 8-year-old, my favorite uncle showed me how to speed.
“Ninety up the hill, 80 down the hill,” he quipped from the driver’s seat of his Ford Mustang GT, which zipped along the windy, scenic roads in his tree-lined home state.
Paul Zuvanich always had a wild streak and was crazy about cars, having started working at an auto repair shop when he was in high school. He worked at the same garage 40 years later and at one time turned a Mustang into an actual race car, which for a little while he used on an amateur circuit in New England.
Uncle Paul had one of his buddies videotape his races and liked to show them off during summer vacations to Houston, even though he did more wrecking than winning.
So whizzing down the road with him was cool for a kid like me, who regarded the experience as a rite of passage. My dad drove the same sports car as his twin brother when I was a kid, and I bought a Mustang of my own not long into adulthood.
Let’s just say I took advantage of the car’s capabilities.
As fun as it all was, though, now I’m not so sure how cool it was. I just feel lucky to still be here, and I even feel a little guilty.
Because the last time I went to Connecticut, just last week, it was to mourn the death of my cousin. Phil Zuvanich, Paul’s only son, was killed in a one-vehicle accident early June 23.
Phil and his best friend, Elliot Gregory, were out late and going way too fast down one of those windy, scenic roads in tree-lined Connecticut. According to local news reports, they lost control, went airborne over a low guardrail and collided with trees before settling at the bottom of a wooded ravine.
Both were 20 years old and died at the scene. At a joint visitation service June 28 – three years to the day after we lost Paul to brain cancer – it seemed like the entire Newtown and Sandy Hook communities came by to pay their respects and offer their condolences.
The tragedy was startling to the towns and especially to our families, but there was no blame being thrown around in its aftermath. These were two young men who enjoyed life and were having fun and, in a matter of seconds, had it all stripped away from them.
It’s made me think a lot about how fleeting life can be and how dangerous it can be to get behind a wheel and drive a car down the road, which is something most of us do every day without stopping to think about it. We put our lives at risk every time we fire up the engine and press down on the gas pedal, especially if we’ve had too much to drink, are paying too much attention to our phones or are in too much of a hurry.
There was another sobering reminder on my first day back at work this week, when I had to put together a story about a fatal accident right here in our community. Garden Oaks resident Guadalupe Sauceda, a 75-year-old grandfather, was killed a few blocks from home last weekend when his truck was struck by an alleged drunk driver.
After seeing photos of the wreck on Facebook, and finding out more details about it and the people involved, I couldn’t help but think more about my cousin and what my family – particularly Phil’s mom and two sisters – are going through. And it broke my heart all over again.
What can we do to make sure no more families have to mourn a loved one who died on the road? What should we do?
I’m tempted to say we should send every car to a scrapyard and force people to get around on their feet, their bicycles or via public transportation. Along with being safer by and large, that also would be cleaner for the environment and more energy efficient.
We can’t expect people to stop drinking beer after work or enjoying wine with dinner, we can’t keep them from being distracted and we can’t keep testosterone and the feeling of invincibility from coursing through the veins of 20-year-old men. But we sure as shoot can keep folks from operating heavy machinery that puts themselves and everyone they encounter in harm’s way.
I know that’s unfair and unreasonable, though, and it’s also impractical in places like Houston and Connecticut and most everywhere in between. People need cars and trucks to do their jobs and get where they’re going, and they have the right to roam freely and get from place to place on their own time and without depending on buses or trains.
I still contend that our car culture could stand to be curbed. The slower, more safely and more smartly we drive, and the fewer cars we put on the road, the fewer fatal accidents we’ll suffer through and the better off we’ll be in the long run.
And I say that as a once-habitual speeder who benefited greatly from the car culture I’m now criticizing. In fact, some of my family members might be calling me a hypocrite and an ingrate as they read this.
My relatives and I have been afforded many opportunities because of the career enjoyed by my late granddad – Phil’s namesake – as a petroleum engineer. Both of his sons worked in the auto business or oil and gas industry, as have his two sons-in-law.
But his youngest grandson, who worked for a car dealership, is gone now. He had his life cut way too short because he was in a car going way too fast.
It was an accident, sure, and it’s hard to say Phil or his friend were at fault. Driving fast has been a tradition in the Zuvanich family, and up until now, all it really cost us was money in traffic fines.
I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t exhilarating to dart down the road doing 90, with the windows down and the radio blaring. I’ve done that more than a time or two.
But it doesn’t sound so fun anymore. I no longer want to drive fast and fearlessly. I’m not sure I want to drive at all.
I just want my cousin back.