A mother's mourning becomes a mission

Legacy: Her son's death propelled Rochelle Sobel to warn other travelers of the risks of road travel abroad.

May 30, 1999|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

A 25-year-old Baltimore medical student named Aron Sobel dreamed of saving lives. After he died in a bus crash in Turkey, his mother has fulfilled her son's wish -- by offering her grievous loss as a warning to travelers.

"When you lose a child, you die. The mourning never stops. The pain is constant," said Rochelle Sobel, a 55-year-old private school teacher living in Potomac.

"The only way it's alleviated -- even a little bit -- is when I know I'm doing some good in his name. I'm passionate about that."

Four years ago, Aron was about to graduate from the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. On a break before returning home from a rotation in an Israeli hospital, he went sightseeing through Turkey.

He died when his bus plunged over the edge of a twisting mountain road, an accident that claimed 23 lives. It was a dangerous pass, and the bus was speeding down the wrong side of the road.

Aron's friends and family were devastated. Bright, naturally athletic, warm and funny, Aron was something rare -- an overachiever with a regular-guy attitude. Always ready with a joke (he memorized some bad ones for all occasions) or to compete on a basketball court, he never held a grudge, nor did he brag.

But as the Sobel family learned more about their son's death, they were left reeling: The curve where Aron died was notoriously unsafe. On the eve of a religious holiday, the bus company was trying to rush its schedule to earn more fares, and such accidents were almost 20 times more common in Turkey than in the U.S.

Worst of all, Aron never knew any of this. How could he? His travel guidebook hadn't warned him, nor had the U.S. government.

"Early on, I called the State Department and asked, 'Are the roads bad in Turkey?' and they said, 'We don't know,' " Sobel recalled. " 'Have they had a lot of deaths?' 'We don't know.' "

Within a matter of weeks, Sobel created a grass-roots organization to educate the public about the dangers of traveling on foreign roads. She soon discovered that car and bus accidents were the second leading cause of death for Americans traveling abroad, behind only heart attacks.

"Guidebooks are warning you that in some countries you could get lured into a bar, drugged, and have a pocket-watch stolen, but they weren't telling you anything about the roads," she said. "It made no sense."

One of her first targets was the State Department, which neither issued warnings about foreign roads nor kept statistics on American deaths abroad. Today, that's changed. Thanks to her lobbying, road safety information is routinely collected by U.S. consulates abroad and provided to tourists on request. The State Department is considering further action.

"I've found her inspirational," said Assistant Secretary for European Affairs Marc Grossman, who served as U.S. ambassador to Turkey at the time of the accident. "She took that tragedy and turned it into something that has saved many lives."

As executive director of the Association for Safe International Road Travel, the organization she runs from her first-floor study, Sobol has traveled the world warning about traffic dangers in developing countries.

Every time she speaks she talks about her son's death. His picture can be found at the top of ASIRT's Web site.

"Mothers Against Drunk Driving started with a mother who lost a child. It's one of the most powerful ties you can imagine," said Dr. Stephen Hargarten, professor of emergency medicine at the Medical College of Wisconsin who has studied U.S. deaths overseas. "She's effectively called attention to a problem that people don't often recognize."

ASIRT brochures warn travelers of the most dangerous countries, such as Egypt and Kenya, where motorists are 40 times more llikely to be killed in an accident. Bad roads, aggressive drivers, poor emergency medical care, unsafe vehicles and untrained drivers are among the most common problems.

One thing the association never does, however, is tell travelers not to visit these countries. The goal is to educate people of the dangers so they will take proper precautions, Sobel said.

"For instance, when you plan your itinerary, you ought not be riding at night on a bus through India," she said.

Travel industry officials have not always greeted her work kindly. At one Washington area travel show she was asked to remove a display naming countries with the worst traffic safety records. But others in the business have been more appreciative and ASIRT's message has begun to creep into travel books.

"She has really gotten me hip to this," said Jeannette Belliveau, a Baltimore travel writer and lecturer, who incorporates ASIRT's message in her public presentations. "People generally think the big safety problem is assault or robbery. The biggest problem is road accidents."

Sobel's friends said her work has helped her cope with Aron's death in a way that nothing else could.

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