If I have ever given you a ride in my car, I can guarantee that two things happened.
I delivered you 15 minutes late, and I told you, probably several times by way of reassurance, that I’ve never been in a car accident.
Because I had never been.
I managed to coast through all the early driving years — transfixed by the dials of a radio, California stopping at every right turn and completely unaware of the meaning of a yellow blinking traffic light — without ever crashing into anything. My track record held even beyond high school despite some very precarious scenarios that would unnerve even the most vigilant of drivers, such as driving through any city in Europe, navigating the mall parking lot at Christmastime and arriving to the first day of work at my summer job to find out that I was expected to drive “standard,” which I believed to mean “in accordance with the traffic laws of the United States of America.”
My proclivity to tell anyone — everyone, for that matter — that I’ve never been in a car accident was as much to set my own mind at ease as it was theirs. It’s a great responsibility to transport another human against and through a fast-moving current of other humans being transported.
Getting from point A to point B isn’t as simple a task as it once was now that everyone drives cars the size of greenhouses and at speeds once known only by aircraft, and we do it all with startlingly scant attention to the road. I understand the wordless transfer of trust that is handed to me when someone gets into my car, a faith that cannot come easily when my passenger sees that I still wear jeans with holes in the knees and my hands never rest for long at the “10 and 2” position on the steering wheel.
Despite all of this, I had never been in an accident.
A tale much beloved by my parents to tell about their two children is the time they were quizzing my younger brother in preparation for his driving test.
My dad read out the question, “When does a pedestrian have the right of way?”
My brother reflexively yelled, “When they’re blind!”
Our father looked at him in complete exasperation before turning to me for the answer.
“Was that not correct?” I asked tentatively. Evidently pedestrians possess the right of way at all times even if their eyesight is that of an eagle.
Despite that blundering oversight, I had never been in accident.
Last week, I was driving along with the children strapped into their carseats when I came to a stop at the light at the head of the grocery store parking lot. I took advantage of the red light to steal a glance at the back seat, and when I turned my attention back to the light, I saw that it was already green. I dropped my foot on the pedal at the exact moment the driver opposite me, in the left turn lane, hit her gas to dart into the parking lot. There was no avoiding the collision. The circumstances and the ice under our wheels had conspired perfectly to send my car slamming into the side of her car.
As I skittered over the ice on my way to make sure everyone in her car was all right, I became acutely aware of my location in front of the grocery store. Cars slowed in anticipation of an ugly duel between two drivers, a couple of them even honked, perhaps in a show of concern or, more likely, as jeers for slowing their progress toward the Little Debbie cakes awaiting them inside the store. It occurred to me that in all the years I’d spent considering that I had never been in a car accident, I had never given any thought to what I should do if I got in one.
The exchange between me and the other driver was an anticlimax, particularly to the onlookers. We didn’t shout, point or lunge at the other’s jugular, as I had figured were compulsory behaviors when standing over a shattered bumper and a dented wheel well. We did everything two people who have a lot more to care about than the facades of their cars would do, which was to shrug a lot and repeat various iterations of “I’m just glad you’re OK.” We left with the other’s insurance information, we both knew that to be the customary practice, but with what seemed the obvious, albeit unspoken, conclusion that neither of us was going to press the issue. In fact, I think I dropped the piece of paper I’d scrawled her number upon before even climbing back into the car.
I’ve been told a dozen times since the accident that I did the wrong thing, that I should have called the police because I was in the more legally favorable position. I should have had her insurance address the quote I had gotten to fix the bumper. I can’t explain why I didn’t feel like defending my side, but I’m willing to bet it is so we can all forget that it happened, and I can return to telling people that I’ve never been in a car accident.
Just check my record.