Faith, hope, common sense keep driver safe

Jeri Mortensen says her husband would rank her the worst driver in the world. But ask the same of driving professionals, and she'll get a much different grade.

That's because it's been a long time since Mortensen has been in an honest-to-goodness fender-bender. Forever, to be exact.

"I haven't really had an accident with a vehicle. I've backed into a couple of trailers," but that's it, said Mortensen, a 61-year-old Henderson woman who has been driving since she was 16.

Even more surprising is that she's lived in the Las Vegas Valley for 54 years now -- "I've been there since Bonanza (Road) was a dirt road," she says -- and avoided wrecking in an area with a well-deserved reputation for being a demolition derby as of late.

Her insurer (which recently reported the average driver living in Las Vegas is 26 percent more likely to get into a crash than the typical motorist nationwide, while Henderson-based drivers are about 12 percent more likely) confirms they have no claims by her for at least the past 20 years. And that's as far back as their tracking goes.

Over two decades, the average Joe or Jane in Anywhereville, U.S.A. would've been in two or three bumper-bashings, at least.

"Personally, I think it's miraculous," Melinda Wilson, a spokeswoman for Allstate Insurance Co., which has covered Mortensen since 1984, said of Mortensen's clean slate. "And I wonder how and why."

So did I. Earlier this month, I gave Mortensen a call and asked her for her secrets on how she's stayed street-safe for so long. What does she do?

"Drive fast. No," she laughs. "I don't know" why wrecks have always been someone else's problem. But every time she's behind the wheel, it's no accident that she uses good old-fashioned common sense, courtesy and care.

"I drive pretty much the speed limit. I'm very cautious and pay attention most of the time. I don't tailgate at all. I don't follow real close to cars. I watch two to three car lengths ahead of me. When I get to intersections, I really pay attention.

"I look left and I look right. I don't want to get hit" by red light-runners and other idiots with four wheels in their control.

"They're speeding. They're running red lights," Mortensen said. How often does she see that? "Often. Truly, I do."

So at intersections, she pauses before she goes, just in case other drivers put their trips ahead of others' lives.

"I don't know if they're going to stop. I creep out into the intersection," even when she has a green light. "I hesitate."

It's not like her safe driving history is because she hides in her home. She's a semi-retired consultant who drives at least every other day and spends most of the year here. Before that, she was a co-owner of a landscaping business and an executive secretary.

"We go. We're out all the time," Mortensen said.

In her time on valley streets, she's seen traffic norms change "a tremendous amount."

"There's a lot more people. They are sporadic" in driving habits, she said, something that became more pronounced from the late 1980s on, when the valley's boom began to bloat. "And they drive fast. They're aggressive drivers.

"There's so many people today. So many young people. People come up behind you very fast. They're speeding."

Time has also changed how Mortensen drives.

"I've become more conscious," she said. "When you're young, you don't pay as much attention. When you're older, you get more cautious."

The change came around mid-life. "I started becoming aware in my late 40s, really aware," she said.

What triggered that realization wasn't time behind the wheel. It was time atop horses. She got hurt a couple of times while riding.

"That made me very cautious," Mortensen said.

She's had her share of close calls when on the go. Like about six months ago, in Henderson.

"One day, a kid was coming up" from behind, Mortensen said. "He was going 90 mph. He was zipping in and out" of traffic, nearly clipping her car. "Real close. Scared me to death. I had that (kind of close call) a couple of times."

Mortensen concedes part of her sterling driving record is attributable to fate.

"It's all in God's hands, period. I believe in faith, totally," she said. "But then, He blesses you with brains."

What advice does she have for other drivers?

"Don't drink. Don't do drugs. Be cautious. Drive the speed limit," she said.

Is it really that simple?

"It certainly helps," Mortensen said.

She doesn't mean to be flippant when discouraging driving while drunk or drugged up.

"It's true," Mortensen said. "You've got to have all your faculties. It's like flying an airplane."

Minus the parachutes.

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