Last Friday, I became a statistic -- one of the thousands of Americans involved in a serious auto accident. And since columnists never draw breath without at least considering the column angle to their personal experiences, I am offering mine.
Tooling along on a local four-lane highway with green lights for at least a half-mile, I was going about 50 miles per hour in a 55 mile per hour zone. Suddenly -- instantly it seemed -- a white car just materialized in front of me. I later learned that he had been traveling in the other direction and had made a left turn without checking to see if there was oncoming traffic. It was so sudden that I don't think I even had time to hit the brakes (there were no skid marks on the street). My entire being seemed to be screaming "NOOOOOO" as I crashed into him full force at 50 mph.
My minivan demolished the entire front end of his medium-sized sedan, spun his car around and kept moving. I crashed into part of a utility pole and came to a stop only when my van plowed into the diagonal anchoring cable of the utility pole. The cable was imbedded about a foot into the van's front end. Once the van had stopped, I recall wondering why the airbags, now lying limp with shards of the windshield scattered over them like confetti, had not fully inflated. Your mind plays tricks during a trauma. The bags had, of course, fully deployed as they were designed to. But they inflate in one-thirtieth of a second at 200 miles per hour (thus the injuries) and then deflate so that the driver's field of vision and control of the vehicle will not be impaired.
The van's interior then filled with smoke and I thought it might be about to catch fire. The door on the driver's side would not open. It was jammed. And a weird warning bell was ringing. In shock, I didn't think to climb to the back seat to exit from one of the other doors, I just pounded on the window screaming for help. Fortunately, the accident happened near a construction site and several workers hurried over to help.
The paramedics arrived within a few minutes, established that both drivers were basically unharmed (if you don't count a few bruises) and went on their way. (Thank God I did not have the children with me.) Before they left, they told me, "You'll be sore tomorrow." No kidding. Then we waited for the police. And waited. And waited. To you, it's a life altering event. To emergency personnel, it's just another day at the office.
When the policeman finally arrived (40 minutes later), he issued a report blaming the driver of the other car for the accident. They towed the dead cars (both totaled) away, and it was over.
But it wasn't really. Once home, the smallest noise made me jump. I felt like a World War I soldier with shell shock -- complete with flashbacks.
Still, the show must go on. And one must drive again. I do. But now, and perhaps for a long time to come, I drive with the assumption that every other driver on the road is potentially insane or stupid or drunk.
On the other hand, I am filled with admiration for the engineers who designed the Ford Windstar -- one of the safest vehicles on the road, and for the engineers in the public and private sector who designed and built air bags. (Our next car will have side air bags, as well.)
If I had not been wearing a seat belt, it is clear that I would have been seriously injured and possibly killed by this accident. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 112,000 lives were saved between 1975 and 1998 due to seat belt use. And traffic fatalities from all causes have steadily declined over the past 60 years. Still, Americans lag behind other industrialized nations in seat-belt use. Only 69 percent use front seat belts regularly. And many have misplaced confidence in the capacity of airbags alone to prevent injuries.
One is constantly aware of the whims of fate -- and there are no guarantees in this life. But take it from someone who just walked away from a mass of smoldering metal and glass -- buckle up!