New Jersey Governor Sees Crash as Link to People’s Struggles

April 4, 2008

As New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine reflects on the year following his near-fatal car crash, he’s quick to discuss practical and public policy changes that go well beyond his physical recovery.

The April 2007 accident has led to changes in the way the state protects and drives its governor. The 61-year-old Corzine now won’t travel anywhere without wearing his seat belt, and seat belt usage is up statewide.

And the Democratic governor says the accident and his subsequent recovery gave him more reason to fight for a law that would allow citizens to take paid leave to care for their loved ones.

Corzine was a front-seat passenger not wearing a seat belt when his state trooper-driven sport utility vehicle slammed into a guardrail at high speed after it was clipped by a pickup truck on the Garden State Parkway. A state police report later determined that improper use of emergency lights by Corzine’s driver triggered events that led to the April 12 crash.

The governor’s left leg was broken in two places, and he was hospitalized for 18 days, much of it in intensive care and on a ventilator.

Corzine says the care he received from his family following the crash strengthened his resolve to give workers the right to take paid leave from work to care for a new child or sick family member. A bill to make New Jersey the third state to approve such leave is near final approval.

“I can’t imagine how I would have psychologically felt if my children hadn’t been there,” Corzine said in an interview with The Associated Press. “And I find it very hard to not be sympathetic with others who may not have the economic wherewithal to make that happen, so it fortifies my view that it’s a good thing.”

The accident also has led to significant changes in how the governor travels. Instead of being driven, Corzine travels to more events in a state police helicopter. And when he is driven, he says troopers ensure he’s buckled up, are more aware of their speed and use emergency lights only to maneuver out of traffic jams.

“They’re pretty disciplined about seat belts,” Corzine said. “I think they’re much more cognizant of speed. They don’t use the lights but in the rarest of circumstances.”

Corzine said he remains confident in his state police protection, and doesn’t blame the troopers for his accident.

“I think they did everything they could to protect me under the circumstances, other than one could argue whether they were going too fast,” Corzine said. “I think that’s a fair comment, but within that constraint I think they did everything they could possibly do.”

Still, state police haven’t implemented all the recommendations of a special task force that reviewed the governor’s protection unit after the crash.

State Police Capt. Al Della Fave said troopers can still drive the governor for more than eight hours, though the task force said troopers should be replaced after driving him for that long.

“We were unable to do this until the staffing level of the bureau increased and members received the proper amount of experience and training,” Della Fave said.

He said state police also have neither started a six-month probationary period for new unit members nor begun a 40-hour training course for unit members, as was recommended by the panel.

However, Della Fave said state police have implemented more extensive training for trooper-drivers, including periodic refresher courses, along with Secret Service-style training. And the governor’s 29-member protection unit was recently expanded by four troopers, which was recommended.

Della Fave said there were no records available detailing how often Corzine’s drivers exceeded the posted speed limit and used emergency lights since the crash.

He said other states may be using the recommended travel reforms as a model. Several states have asked New Jersey for copies of the task force recommendations, though he declined to detail which ones, citing security concerns.

Meanwhile, New Jersey seat belt usage increased since the crash, from 90 percent to 91.7 percent. Corzine, who paid a $46 fine for not wearing his seat belt, has promoted seat belt usage since his accident.

“It is clear to me there is an age group that didn’t grow up with this as a fundamental part of their training as a child or as a youth that I think has definitely taken the message at heart,” Corzine said. “I hear it all the time, generally from the older 55 set.”

As for his physical rehabilitation, Corzine says he feels great. He doesn’t walk with a limp, and he runs up to five miles on a treadmill. He says his left leg _ the one where surgeons inserted a titanium rod _ still acts up occasionally.

“I have trouble differentiating whether it’s full strength or I’m 61,” he decides with a chuckle.

The governor knows he’s “blessed to be alive,” and seems genuinely grateful for the many lessons he’s learned from his accident.

“The reality is that other people have accidents, other people have challenges in their lives,” Corzine said. “We have a recession. People are struggling, so I don’t think I need to separate myself from the struggles other people have, and it’s probably an important connection to the fact that people struggle all the time.

“I think we’re having an impact on issues that may actually impact other people’s lives, so that’s good,” he added.

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