Sam Tananhaus:

Even as rescue teams were sifting through the wreckage of the horrific Metro-North crash last Tuesday—the crumpled Mercedes S.U.V., the molten train coaches—many wondered about the state of mind of Ellen Brody, the motorist who found herself trapped between the crossing arm and the train tracks in Valhalla, New York, in Westchester. Brody was a much respected and highly responsible person (spouse, mom, jewelry-store employee)—and a careful driver, too. In the minutes before the accident, she seemed calm and deliberate. She climbed out of her vehicle to try to dislodge the guard rail and then settled back in, long enough—Rick Hope, the motorist behind her, speculated—to refasten her seat belt. And yet Brody, with time and room to back up, instead drove across the tracks, directly into the path of a train hurtling through at its normal speed, sixty miles per hour. “The thing’s dinging, red lights are flashing, it’s going off,” Hope told the Times. “I just remember going, ‘Hurry up.’ I just knew she was going to back up—never in my wildest dreams did I think she’d go forward.”
 Did Brody, in her panic, mistakenly put the car into drive instead of reverse, or calculate that she could make it through the intersection? No one could say. “Very little is actually known about what causes accidents,” Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in “Epidemic on the Highways,” his pioneering essay on highway safety, published in 1959. “But all that is known points to the conclusion that accidents result when drivers find themselves in situations to which they cannot respond correctly, either because their minds don’t work fast enough or simply because it’s ‘too late.’ ”