In order to highlight the dangerous but very commonly-held belief that ‘it will never happen to me,’ and the extreme irony of Dean having recently made a Public Service Announcement for the NSC, about the dangers of fast driving on highways (see final paragraph), our very first Memorial Page is purposefully dedicated to one of the most famous Americans ever to lose his life in a car crash — James Dean, 1931-1955.
On September 30, 1955, he was driving to a sports car racing competition when he crashed his Porsche 550 Spyder at the intersection of California State Route 46 (formerly 466) and California State Route 41, a short distance north east of Cholame, CA.
Just over two hours before the collision, Dean had been stopped by California Highway Patrolman O.V. Hunter just south of Bakersfield, for speeding.
Just prior to the collision, around 5:45pm, a black-and-white 1950 Ford Tudor was being driven east on Route 466 just west of the junction near Shandon. Its driver was 23-year-old US Navy veteran and Cal Poly student Donald Turnupseed, who then made a left turn onto Route 41 headed north, toward Fresno. As the Ford crossed over the center line, Dean, presumably seeing the danger, apparently tried to take evasive action in his Spyder, but the two cars “collided almost head-on.”
A nurse who arrived at the scene by chance believed that Dean died almost immediately. He was subsequently taken away by ambulance but was pronounced dead on arrival at Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital, 28 miles away.
The only passenger with Dean, the Porsche factory-trained mechanic Rolf Wütherich, required immediate surgery for a broken jaw and serious hip and femur injuries but survived.
At the subsequent inquest, the coroner’s jury came back with a verdict of “accidental death with no criminal intent”, finding Turnupseed not guilty of any contributory wrongdoing in the death of Dean.
Ironically, Dean had previously filmed a short public service announcement for the National Safety Council. It featured Dean dressed as the young “Jett Rink” talking about how driving fast on the highway can be more dangerous than racing on the track. At the end of the segment, instead of saying the catchphrase “The life you save may be your own”, Dean ad-libbed the line “The life you might save might be mine”.
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