When I returned to driving, I wasn’t thrilled about the prospect, but I did everything I could to tilt the odds in my favor. I kept my trips to a minimum, during daylight hours, when traffic was light. I deliberately didn’t buy another child seat and I made it plain that I wouldn’t be doing chauffeur duty for my clone until I was considerably improved. I avoided high speeds, crowded freeways, and when it snowed I stayed indoors. Statistically, I set myself up to succeed. I was particularly cheered by the fact that I often went a fairly long time between experiencing anything that even threatened to turn into a collision situation. The odds were definitely in my favor. Hundred to one.
But the tricky thing about hundred-to-one situations is this: there’s still that one.
There’s bravery, then there’s being foolhardy, then there’s just plain desperation. My passenger in my rental Chrysler 200 this past Tuesday had been my passenger before, and recently. But this time she was in the back seat, with her crutches next to her, instead of in the front seat of my Town Car as we loped down a snow-covered rural road. After nearly a month in the hospital, she was ready to see the outside world — and if said tour came at the hands of someone who had nearly killed her, it was a risk she was prepared to take. I couldn’t tell if that was brave of her, foolhardy, or desperate. Still, as we trundled along Westerville Road just south of Route 270 in Columbus, there didn’t seem any reason for concern, and the speedometer was quivering around the “30″ mark on a dry, nearly empty road. Let’s take a look at it.
We were traveling north on this road, just south of the minor intersection. A flatbed tow truck was ahead of us in the center lane, preparing to turn left. Which he did, as we approached his position. He’s the reddish-orange arrow (curse you, MS Paint!); we are the green one.
At this point, I was busy telling CMW, my passenger, about something amusing that had happened to me and my brother a long time ago, but we both heard it:
I scanned around me and didn’t see anything. Nobody braking to a halt, nobody doing a burnout in the parking lot, nobody swerving around. For half a second I engaged in a robust round of self-evaluation that went something like this: “You God-damned idiot, you’re too stupid and slow to see what’s happening around you. There’s no way you should be back in a car. The two of you have more broken bones between you than Evel Kneivel and when you get hit by what you’re too stupid to find in your field of vision, you’re both dead as doornails.” Then I put that bullshit away and started thinking for real.
Calm down. Trust yourself. Yes, you had a miserable accident. But yes, you’re still the same person who has won a few races by seeing more than everybody around you. Assume what you can see is real. What can’t you see? Where are you blocked?
We were clear all around us. But the noise seemed to be coming from the other side of the tow truck. It was time for a decision. I nosed the Chrysler off the road onto the shoulder and then into the open right side of the intersection, as shown here:
The noise continued as I braked to a near-halt and the Silverado some distance behind continued towards my position without slowing. Great, I thought, to avoid a noise you’re going to get rear-ended by a half-ton. And then it appeared.
Blue last-gen Impala. Not a 3.6, I dispassionately noted. It appeared sideways in the lane I’d abandoned, swerving around the tow truck, seemingly completely out of control. And as is always the case in a situation like this, I found myself taking notes. White guy, blue-collar features, heavy sawing at the wheel, he’s still working the car, still trying to figure it out. Shoulda hit the brakes alone; if he had room and grip to get around the truck, he had room to stop.
Then the car caught its front end and slewed the other way. I couldn’t help but notice that this situation was remarkably similar to the one had that had fractured nine of my favorite bones and temporarily crippled a very cheerful and attractive young woman. He was going a little faster, and the motions of the Impala were far more dramatic than what my Townie had done, but I expected it would end with him being clocked in the door by that Silverado, which was just now starting to hit its brakes.
In a thing like this, there’s always room for luck, or Grace, or whatever you want to call it. Impala Man didn’t make the third correction and his car hit the curb just as the locked brakes took the steam out of it. He’s the yellow arrow:
Right about then, the tow truck completed its turn into the parking lot. It didn’t slow or stop or back up to see what had happened. The Impala curbed with an audible BANG! but even as I pulled gently back onto the road and began to consider what my duties as a witness might be, he reversed from the curb and continued the way he’d presumably intended to go.
Well, if he wasn’t going to pursue the matter, I wasn’t going to chase him down and make him do it. The whole sequence of events became clear. Tired/spaced-out/needlessly aggressive tow-truck driver is sick of waiting to turn and he just turns. Impala guy, who was clearly doing more than the 35mph limit for the road, jams his brakes and steers around the tow truck. He then saws the wheel backwards because he realizes he’s about to go nose to nose with a Silverado. ABS makes it possible but this being an old Impala there’s no magic stability control to prevent the final half-gainer into the curb, if indeed it could have been prevented. The driver of the Impy is at least 51% in the right here, but either because he was significantly speeding or because he’s uninsured or because he’s Anton Chigurh he chooses not to pursue it with the Blendon Township police.
As the Chrysler’s feckless World Engine chugged along towards home, my passenger said, “Hey, if you hadn’t gotten out of the way we’d have hit him head-on.” This was absolutely true and it made me shudder a bit. A nose-to-nose 30mph hit isn’t a killer in normal circumstances but both of us are in a position where we’re significantly more likely than the average bear to bleed out after that crash.
“Well,” I responded, “we both heard something.”
“But it wasn’t clear what to do, was it?”
“Not really.” And in truth I’d simply done about the only thing available to me: get out of the way of something that might not have even been actually happening. Luck was on my side. I was lucky because I didn’t have the stereo or a phone call cranked too loud to hear the brake lockup. I was lucky because there was space available to avoid the situation. I was lucky because had the Impy swung wider he’d have collected us in my door and cashed my check with a reasonable amount of finality. I said a prayer of thanks under my breath as we took the 270 ramp, but it was laced with bitterness. For better or worse, I figured that perhaps after my January crash I’d have some good luck coming my way in the future. (And yes, I know that the best of luck had already happened when my son walked away unhurt from that nightmare frame-bender.) Insofar as I expect to spend the second half of the year racing in a couple different series, I’d hoped that the luck would come in the form of avoiding a crash on-track, or perhaps a major mechanical from the first-place driver, or something like that. Something that would lead to a trophy, which I would clutch with righteous ardor.
Nope. If there was a credit balance in that particular account, it’s gone now. Luck is no longer a factor. We’ll run on statistics for a while, taking the slow roads to lunch, watching an increasingly confusing world go by in the windows of our turtle-topped four-cylinder rental, grateful to be alive, doubly glad to make it to bed safe and sound, as subject to the next roll of the dice as we ever were.