BY ERIC RUBIN
Rochelle Sobel’s life changed when she received word that her son Aron had died in a bus accident in Turkey (now Türkiye) in 1995. Aron, an American citizen visiting Turkey, died along with 22 others. He was 25. The bus driver had been speeding down the wrong lane of a narrow, ill-maintained road with a sharp curve and no guardrail. The road had long been on a government list of “black spots” in need of repair. Aron’s graduation from the University of Maryland Medical School would have taken place two weeks from the day he was killed.
Rochelle decided to take action to ensure that Aron’s death was not in vain. From her first contact with our embassy in Turkey and then-Ambassador Marc Grossman, to her founding of the Association for Safe International Road Travel (ASIRT) nearly 30 years ago, Rochelle has propelled an international movement that has made great strides in improving road safety and reducing deaths and injuries.
Road safety is a serious issue for the Foreign Service. I know from personal experience: My best friend from A-100 died with his teenage daughter on a trip to a family wedding in Ukraine more than 20 years ago. Other friends and colleagues have been involved in horrific accidents. I can count the losses on more than one hand.
We lost three dearly loved Foreign Service colleagues in 2022: Sarah Langenkamp, Timothy Fingarson, and Shawn O’Donnell. Two died in bicycle accidents, and one crossing the street. Two were in Foggy Bottom, one in Bethesda. I worked with Sarah’s husband, Dan, and knew her personally as a giving person, a fantastic diplomat, mother, and spouse. The loss of these three colleagues is devastating. We mourn these senseless deaths, and we must resolve to do something to prevent future tragic losses from road accidents, both in the U.S. and overseas.
When we go overseas in the Foreign Service, we accept that we will face a certain amount of risk and danger. We know that terrorism is an ever-present threat. We know that more U.S. ambassadors have lost their lives in the past 100 years than U.S. military generals and admirals. We know that between the end of the Vietnam War and the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it was more dangerous to be in the Foreign Service than in the U.S. military.
We hope that the coming years are those of a peacetime military in which our service men and women face fewer threats and risks. We hope that our own Service and our colleagues will face fewer threats, as well; but we also know that service to our country means accepting risk.
There are risks we cannot eliminate. There will always be those in this world who wish us harm and who target those serving our country. There is also crime and catastrophe. Life is unpredictable.
Road safety may be our biggest safety threat but also our biggest opportunity. We do not have to accept the loss of so many of our friends and colleagues who have died or been grievously injured in road accidents while serving our country.
Rochelle Sobel and her colleagues have identified dozens of steps that can be taken, and in some cases have already been taken, to reduce unnecessary deaths and injuries on the world’s roads. To learn more about ASIRT, please visit www.asirt.org.
I hope you will consider joining this effort, starting with participating in an overseas road safety survey AFSA is conducting this month.
Also, ASIRT is offering AFSA members a 20 percent discount on their comprehensive, country-specific Road Safety Reviews for individual travelers, $40 each, vice $50. (Note: To get a report, fill out the form at https://bit.ly/Register-ASIRT and enter $40 in the “Subscription Level Amount” field. The form says “subscription,” but it gets you to the one-time purchase.)
AFSA will continue to engage with the leadership of all the foreign affairs agencies to urge greater efforts to reduce road deaths and injuries, and to prevent the tragedies that too many of us have experienced during our careers of service.
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