The Safety Street Q&A series features NCSR partners, industry leaders and other notable transportation organizations who are working towards the collaborative goal of safer roads.
The impact left Gabriel Cordell paralyzed from the chest down and near death, the collision with a red-light runner having sent him flying through the soft-top roof of his Jeep and into a telephone pole. And on October 17, 1992, his life was changed forever. Despite his initial 30 percent chance of survival, Gabriel went on to spend the next 20 years fighting drug addiction and struggling for his independence — until he found meaning in his circumstances and decided he could make a difference.
Now, Gabriel is rolling across the country in his wheelchair to raise awareness and inspire others to believe in their own potential. On March 30, he began his journey in Santa Monica, Calif. with a film crew to document the trek. He will arrive in West Hempstead, N.Y. in time for his 25th high school reunion. Gabriel hopes the documentary, Roll With Me, will inspire people to realize that anything is achievable and to pursue their dreams in spite of any perceived limitations.
Safety Street had a chance to speak with Gabriel about the collision that changed his life, his thoughts on road safety and his cross-country journey to raise awareness. Read the Q&A below to learn more:
Safety Street: Would you please tell us a little bit about the details of your collision?
Gabriel: I was driving in my Jeep Wrangler and approaching a small intersection. I had the green light and as I was going through the intersection. I saw a car coming in my peripheral vision and I knew she was going to run the red light. Although she didn’t quite T-bone me, she came close. She hit the rear quarter panel of my driver side just before the wheel well. I felt myself start to fly out of my soft top and the next thing I remember is waking up on the street with the steering wheel in my hand because I was holding on so tight that I had ripped it out of the column. So, I woke up with the steering wheel in my hand, my soft top wrapped around me, and my Jeep on its passenger side three feet away from me.
I knew immediately that I was paralyzed – all I felt was tingling from the bottom of my chest down. Although I can’t recall it, I learned that I flew seven feet in the air and hit the telephone pole with my back, causing the vertebrae on both sides to crisscross and crush my spinal cord. My spinal cord wasn’t severed, but it was crushed to the point that it was a complete injury where it just smushed all the nerves.
Safety Street: How has the collision impacted your life today and how is it a driving force in the Roll With Me campaign you created to raise awareness?
Gabriel: It’s affected me in two ways. The first way is physical. I don’t have control over my motor skills from my chest down. I do have complete control of my upper motor skills, my head and my arms, which gives me independence. Now the older I get, the more wear and tear I put on my shoulders and this journey has helped show me that. Everything hurts more acutely because my sensation is so limited that I’m ultra-sensitive where I can feel. But, I’m still independent. I’ve lived 18 of the 20 years that I’ve been in a wheelchair by myself. I drive my own car. I mean I do everything except going upstairs.
The collision has also impacted me emotionally. The day of my accident, I was lying on the street with two things running through my head. One, I was paralyzed; two, this is not the thing that is going to make me different; however it’s going to be the vehicle that will allow me to do something extraordinary. I knew that this was an accident that happened to me, but it wasn’t by accident. And twenty years later, that’s how I wound up on this trip.
Safety Street: In light of the collision, what’s the importance of road safety to you?
Gabriel: Road safety is important because it saves peoples’ lives. I actually recognize that even more now that I’m on this journey. I can’t tell you how many crosses I roll by that are obviously there because of car accidents. Now I have every perspective that one could possibly have because I’ve been on some city streets, on one-lane roads, and on the interstate. I pray every day that no one gets hurt on my crew cause that’s something I could never live with. Their safety is very important to me.
Safety Street: Tell us a little bit about how Roll With Me got started and what it means to you?
Gabriel: Eleven months ago, I was a full blown drug addict and when I got out of it, I wanted to do something that was the extreme opposite of what I was doing, living and being at the time. And so I started thinking about how I could make an impact on people. First, I started researching messages that I could bring to people. Then I said, well what if I roll my wheel chair across the country? Has anyone ever done that? So I did research, and there were three people who had done it, but none had done it in an everyday, standard wheelchair.
Then I decided it would be a shame to roll across the country and not have it documented. It was me wanting to make a difference. It took me 20 years to figure out the real reason why I was put in a wheel chair. And now I am living that – I’m kind of rolling away from my past life and rolling into my future.
I’m doing it to give people hope and inspiration that they can do whatever they want and they don’t have to be held back by their circumstances. The human will is powerful and limitless. If you want to do something, you can do it. You really can. And it’s amazing to see not just the affect and inspiration that we are having on people, but to see the affect that we’re having on ourselves. It’s a humbling, beautiful thing.
Safety Street: That’s amazing. How did you choose your route across the country?
Gabriel: I called my friend when I decided to do this and asked him to find the quickest legal route possible. There are states like New Mexico where you are allowed to go on the interstate and others where you are not. So he routed the most direct path and I think it was 3,300 miles. Then when I got my crew, one of the producers cut it down by like 150 miles. So, the route started in California and includes Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York.
Safety Street: What avenues are available for people to get involved and help you out?
Gabriel: The biggest avenue is obviously our website: RollWithMe.org. It’s the most direct way to get involved, but people can also follow our trip on Facebook and Twitter. We’re also on JUNTOBOX Films, which allows people to “like” the project. If we have enough followers to make an impression then JUNTOBOX actually invests in the movie.
For more information on Roll With Me and Gabriel Cordell’s journey across the country, visit RollWithMe.org. You can follow Gabriel as he promotes road safety and a positive outcome from such a dangerous and life-altering collision. The consequences of red-light running are serious, often resulting in injuries or fatalities. Gabriel Cordell has seized his survival as an opportunity to encourage others to tap into their own potential.
The National Coalition for Safer Roads (NCSR) helps save lives and protect communities by demonstrating how red-light safety cameras can improve driver behavior.