This story was originally published in Newsday on April 4, 2008
"Bizzaro" Jerry? Police are now calling him "Hero" Jerry.
East Hampton's police chief yesterday praised comedian Jerry Seinfeld for avoiding a potential collision by managing to stop his 1967 Fiat when the brakes failed.
Thanks to Seinfeld's quick response, police said, the car flipped over Saturday night before it could shoot out of a side street and plow across Montauk Highway.
"He avoided a catastrophic event," Chief Todd Sarris said, calling Seinfeld a hero. "I can't imagine the damage had that vehicle gone into the intersection."
Seinfeld, 53, who was being followed - possibly by his publicist - as he was taking a test drive in his new car, was on Skinhampton Road approaching Montauk Highway when he realized the brakes were not working, police said.
Seinfeld immediately downshifted, pulled up the parking brake, and turned the wheel sharply to the right, Sarris said. The car went into a skid, flipped over at least once and ended up on its side. The comedian was wearing both a lap belt and chest restraint, and did not appear to be injured.
"Because I know there are kids out there, I want to make sure they all know that driving without braking is not something I recommend, unless you have professional clown training or a comedy background, as I do," Seinfeld said. "It is not something I plan to make a habit of."
A passerby who made the 911 call reporting the accident said that she saw the car and saw the driver - whom she did not recognize - walking around at the scene.
By the time her call to police ended, some people had flipped the small Fiat with California plates back onto its wheels, and Seinfeld was driven back to his home about 2 miles away in East Hampton in another car.
Sarris said Seinfeld's publicist was at the scene of the accident and immediately called the comedian back after police asked to speak to him.
The first police officer arrived at the scene around 7:45 p.m. The police chief said neither officer who questioned Seinfeld saw any sign that he had been drinking, and said he answered all their questions fully. Based on a lack of skid marks and other evidence, he concluded that the comedian was not driving over the 30 mph speed limit.
Sarris said that because there was no property damage to anything but Seinfeld's own car, there was no reason to do a full accident reconstruction, and that Seinfeld would not be charged with leaving the scene of an accident. His car was towed.
It turns out Seinfeld has some high-level driving experience. He took a three-day advanced driving course in 1994 at the Skip Barber Racing and Driving School, then located at the racetrack north of San Francisco, company officials said.
The comedian graduated, said Rick Roso, a spokesman and instructor at the school's Lakeville, Conn., branch, but Seinfeld had a minor accident with one of the school's race cars later that year when he returned to do some more driving with friends who were taking the course.
Seinfeld spokeswoman Elizabeth A. Clark Zoia said he attended the school a couple of times and noted that the school's logo was in camera view on the refrigerator on the set of his TV sitcom. "He considered it a badge of honor," she said.
What do you do if your brakes fail?
Walter Irvine, a senior instructor at the Skip Barber Racing and Driving School in Lakeville, Conn., offers these suggestions:
Engage the parking brake. But be aware that it stops only the rear wheels, which could send the car into a skid.
Downshift to a lower gear.
If possible, steer gently onto a grass median or sandy shoulder.
If all else fails and disaster looms, consider using a "topographical option" as Irvine phrases it, such as scraping a guardrail to reduce speed and bring the vehicle to a stop.
- TOM INCANTALUPO