Recently, we dropped our daughter Emily off for her first year of college. It’s an enormous change. When everything was unpacked and put away, and all the paperwork was filled out and filed, and I had brought the last of the forgotten odds and ends, she gave me a hug, and I told her that we were very proud of her. “Thanks, Dad,” she said, her voice swollen with sincerity before I drove away.

I thought of the trip I took to Russia with a group of legislators years ago. At the airport, I took my suitcase out of the car and put it on the sidewalk. My daughter, then 7 years old, flung her arms around me, and sobbing, pleaded with me. “I don’t want you to go,” she wept. “I want you home with me.

Then there was the moment at a high school track meet, when, covering the third leg of the relay for Old Town, she dropped the baton. She kept a brave face for a few moments, but when I folded her in my arms, she melted away in tears.

I have also been there for moments of great joy, too. The soaring happiness I felt when she marched down Sixth Avenue in New York City on Thanksgiving Day as a member of the Macy’s Great American Marching Band; her ascendancy to the National Honor Society; the countless concerts and athletic events; catching her first brook trout. Tying her shoe for the first time. Voting in her first election. Not to mention, of course, earning her driver’s license.

My daughter is a good kid — well, not a kid anymore, for sure, but still my kid. As I think back on all of those moments, I’m astonished at how easily at how close I came to missing every one of them.

On March 8, 2005, I was still very new as a secretary of state. As I got in my truck to head to Augusta from Old Town, it occurred to me as an afterthought to snap on my seat belt. Up to that time, I had been, admittedly, casual and sometimes forgetful in that department. I have no idea why it occurred to me at that moment; but it’s a moment I remember. Not so much for putting on the seat belt, but the conscious thought:  I should really do that.

Half an hour later, after my pickup truck had been transformed into an insurance claim in less than six-10ths of a second, I sat breathless amid the wreckage, the cab filled with broken glass and snow. Gradually, I began to regain my bearings, and shut off the radio, the announcers obliviously reporting the news over the silence of my own crash. The truck was utterly demolished, the ice on the highway spinning me into the ledge cut and the snowbank flipping me upside-down and end over end. Two of the windows were gone altogether, and even the driver’s seat was twisted. But there I sat.

I walked away. But for that narrow band of woven nylon, it’s difficult to imagine the alternative. But all I had to see was the shattered windows and the jagged rocks to know that a very, very different fate awaited me had I failed to accomplish that most simple of tasks.

Since that time, there have been plenty of happy moments. Christmases, birthdays, father-daughter dances, anniversaries, graduations, and now, seeing my daughter off to college — with many more memories yet to be made and cherished.

As the chief motor vehicle officer for the state of Maine, I suppose it should be expected that I would remind people that seat belts save lives. But here, I’m not writing as the chief motor vehicle officer; I’m telling you as a neighbor, as a father, and as someone who has been there. Put it on. You won’t be sorry.

Matthew Dunlap is the secretary of state, and the proud father of University of Maine freshman Emily Dunlap.

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