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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Five Long Seconds

I should probably start listening to my wife. She says a lot of things that I don’t really want to hear, but she’s usually right, doubly so if snow is involved.

Stress and nervous tension are now serious social problems in all parts of the Galaxy, and in order that this situation not in any way be exacerbated I will now reveal that I was not physically injured in any way. And now, on with our story.

Twice a week, I leave my cozy office and drive off for a consulting job in the Hinterlands. On one of these weekly commutes, I make it a point to call my mother and wish her a good Shabbos. My new car has this great Bluetooth feature that allows me to talk at the dashboard while it disconcertingly replies in my mother’s voice. The conversation usually revolves around complaints she has concerning either my daughter or my sisters, but this is a big improvement from when they were mostly complaints about me and how I never call her.

Last Friday, as we concluded our chat, I couldn’t help but notice that, as I sped down the highway, it was snowing heavily all around me and the other cars. Generally I’m not a big fan of talking on cell phones while driving, but this is about as safe a way as it’s going to get. To attune myself better to the road conditions, I switched off the iPod and turned on the AM radio to listen to the weather and traffic reports. As an aside, if you throw in sports, that amounts to the entire programming content of Milwaukee radio.

Despite the heavy, wet, and sloppy snow, there was little traffic around noon on Friday, maybe because most people were smart enough to stay off the roads. My wife, in one of those prescient moments, had advised me earlier in the morning that perhaps I should skip the afternoon session. “Nonsense!” I had declared. “This is Wisconsin! It snows here!” There was a sense of deja vu there.

Plus, I told her, this new car has all kinds of fancy-shmancy safety features, like traction control and antilock brakes. I would be perfectly safe on the road. After all, I’ve been a driver for 24 years and I’ve never caused an accident.

And so, concluding my weekly call, I continued down the highway to my destination. The radio, between commercials, informed me of the status of the “storm”, noting that the snow would cease falling some time after sunset. Scattered reports of accidents began to come in, but traffic remained light, although there was one now developing at or around my destination. I shifted my concentration entirely to the road, which, while becoming increasingly white, was still relatively open.

As the exit approached I saw no evidence of traffic. I took this as a sign that whatever mishap had occurred was now cleared. Jarringly, my dashboard rang, and I pressed the talk button on the steering wheel.

“Where are you?” It was my wife.

“I’m almost at the exit. I’ll be at work in 5 minutes.”

“So you went out there after all? I’ve been shoveling and shoveling! I thought you would come home instead.”

“Don’t be silly; the drive is fine.” Not to mention, this consulting job pays me by the hour, unlike the practice of medicine, which is a crap shoot at best.

“Well Shabbos is at four; don’t expect to be home in 15 minutes. Leave early.”

“I will. See you later.”

I pressed the “hang up” button and made my way through the exit ramp and to the first light. No sign of trouble. Good.

After the light there is a very wide street that needs crossing, and then a small hill, at the bottom of which is a left turn signal leading to a narrow road which winds through an industrial park. Twice a week I make it to that light uneventfully. Not this time.

As the light turned green I found myself behind a large truck that struggled to gain traction and make its way across the broad intersection. Gradually it built up speed and rose to the top of the hill. I followed slightly behind, it never being a good idea to brown-nose a truck going up a hill. We reached the summit and I saw the left turn lane, and signaled to move into it.

At the bottom of the hill I saw two SUVs waiting to make the left turn. There was about a half a block distance between the front end of my car as it entered the lane and the rear end of the second SUV. I was going not faster than 10 or 15 miles per hour at this point as I had followed the truck through the prior intersection.

This is where things happened. I applied the brakes. The brakes weren’t interested. I could hear and feel the antilock braking system engage. The car was not stopping. I found this to be mildly distressing. I watched as the gap, initially 4 or 5 car lengths, began to close with no sign of the car stopping. I had a few seconds in which to observe. The car was not traveling very fast at this point. But it continued to move forward. True to the ABS system, the car did not swerve, either. It just continued to plod forward.

Realizing that the ABS was engaged, I thought I should try something else. I took my foot briefly off of the brake and started to pump it lightly. Again I could feel the shuddering, grinding sensation of the antilock effect. I applied firm pressure. It seemed to make no difference.

I watched the rear end of the first SUV loom nearer. 3 car lengths. 2 car lengths. All this time I was thinking, “it’s going to stop. It HAS to stop. It’s going to stop…now.”

It didn’t stop.

A fraction of a second before the impact I recall thinking, “I can’t believe it’s not stopping.” Followed very quickly by, “hmm…maybe I should have switched lanes—too late!”

Like stock footage from a crash-test, I watched in slow motion as the front end of my car crumpled forwards, and then my hood tented up and began to approach the windshield.

And then—it was over. No glass breaking. No horn blaring. No airbag deployment. No screams of horror. No sirens. Just me sitting there thinking, “Damn it! Why didn’t it stop!”

I watched in a kind of stupor as drivers started to emerge from the SUVs, first the one in front of me, and then the one in front of her, and I realized that the impact had been enough to drive the first SUV into the second.

Eventually I got out and after profuse apologies and a sincere sense of appreciation that no one was actually hurt, we moved our vehicles out of traffic and into the first parking lot in the industrial park, where I waited for several hours for a tow truck while my car became progressively buried in snow and my cell phone battery slowly drained.

All of this was, as my mother would say, “nerve-racking,” as I sat in the lobby of the building and wondered how long it would take AAA to send a tow truck on a day when there were 30 or more snow-related accidents and the driving was slowly worsening. And if they would agree to take me all the way back to the body shop near me. And if my cell phone would finally die before it came. And if I’d end up looking for a motel to spend Shabbos in the middle of Yenemsvelt. And how long it would take to get my car back. And what the cost would be. And what I was supposed to drive during this time.

So we spoke to the police, and I called my insurance agent, and several towing companies until one finally did come, and even fielded a few surrealistic calls from the hospital, and eventually the other two SUVs drove off (they didn’t look damaged to me) and left my beautiful new car sitting in this parking lot looking like a boxer who had taken a really nasty blow to the nose. A snow-covered boxer.

As the tow-truck made its way back over the hill with me in the cab and my car out back, I noticed a news camera set up on the corner next to the highway entrance filming the intersection. I was not relieved to find out that there had been 5 other accidents there on that day.

And with all this I made it to shul the next day and said a blessing for delivering me from harm. I began to get increasingly angry about the whole affair. It still seems to me that the car should have stopped. I didn’t feel it skid at all. I suspect that, had I been driving a car like my old Geo, which does not have antilock brakes, that I would not have hit that SUV. Maybe I’m going through a little denial. Maybe I’m upset that my video-game enhanced reflexes did not allow me to escape the collision. I wish that I could have just backed up those five seconds and had a re-do.

So I’m back in the Geo again, thankful that we decided to keep it around for the kids to drive. They are no doubt upset that it won’t be available for their use during the forthcoming school vacation. Maybe, as my mother-in-law (who picked me up from the body shop 20 minutes before Shabbos) said, “it’s bashert.”

The Geo isn’t what it used to be. It’s noisy now, and it shudders, vibrates, and groans as it makes its way along the snow and ice covered streets. It sounds like an old man with emphysema and a bad cough. Maybe it’s better if the kids don’t drive it too much.

As I write this, it is now five days since the accident and I still haven’t gotten an estimate from the body shop. Were it not for the intervening Holiday, I would have taken this as a bad sign. I’m hoping that the damage isn’t as bad as it looks, new cars being made to crumple to absorb impact and yada yada yada. And I am truly grateful that I emerged from this completely uninjured.

I just wonder if maybe G-d doesn’t want me to have a new car. Six months old and this is its second stay in the body shop. Well, Geo still loves me.

I should probably start listening to my wife.


Shira Salamone said...

Uh, yeah. But thank goodness you walked away in one piece. As for the car--or what's left of it-- well, on the plus side, it kept *you* in one piece, anyway.

~ Sarah ~ said...

oy, as long as you're ok.
maybe the new car just didn't like the cold weather.

Jacob Da Jew said...

whoa, crazy !

Glad to hear you're in 1 pc.

fudge said...

i have to admit upon hearing this story it took me awhile to figure out how bad it had the potential to be. after which i was grateful that, as mentioned above, i still have my dad. considering that we were both waiting at bus stops at roughly the same time that friday, and we both came out of the weekend alive, it's really no wonder grandma is so stressed all the time.
the second thing i felt was an outpouring of love for your crappy geo, who seems to have braved sub-zero conditions and several years now of my driving only to chug on, the little crapmobile that could. my theory is that it's too small and meek to attract trouble.
nevertheless, my thoughts are with the flaming red machine as well.

queeniesmom said...

Glad to hear you're ok. Hopefully the car will be fine too. Also glad you didn't have to spend Shabbat in the back of beyond. That would have been the icing on the cake. The Geo is definately the little car that could!

You're right you should listen to your wife; she grew up in Chicago. We don't have snow in NYC, an inch stops the city. What were you thinking?!

Ezzie said...

The last time I recall being driven in Milwaukee snow, the car I was in only stopped its skid by plowing into a huge snowbank.

In all seriousness, thank God everyone was all right.

For future reference (woo, Cleveland!), though you probably know this... you simply can't stop during a skid. Brakes are meaningless because they simply freeze tires which are rubber, which slide very nicely on ice and snow. The ABS simply keeps them from locking and getting turned by a patch of uneven snow/ice and sending you in circles. [I still remember my dad doing a nice 360 spin right in front of my grandmother's house... pausing... shrugging... driving on.] Pretty much the only option is to view the car like a big sled, and try and turn past the other cars/sleds around you. Plus, sledding in cars - SO cool!

orieyenta said...

You should ALWAYS listen to your wife...snow or no snow. ;)

Glad are are ok...that's what is important.

Elie said...

Scary! Thank God you're OK.

I was in an accident about that serious, which inconveniently occurred six days before my wedding. I haven't thought about it in many years. Maybe I'll blog about it someday.

Halfnutcase said...

hashem says "listen to your wife"

its in sefer bereshis when avraham throws yishmoel out, and maise avos siman l'banim.

Jack's Shack said...

Glad you're ok.

zahava said...

Very, very glad to hear that car rather than you bore the brunt of the impact!

Your description of the events, btw.... simply chilling. I a passenger in an accident when I was in high school. Heavy rain. Driver in the car next to us lost her power steering. I remember our car rolling over, and thinking that we should be stopping as well. ....okay, it was more like praying! that we would be stop.... It was over 25 years ago, but the memory is piercingly sharp....

Again, very glad to hear you are okay. Think of the flaming red machine as a kaparah! ;-)

Oh! And regards to your very smart wife! :-)

Shabbat Shalom!

zahava said...

"... I was a passenger"*

Mrs. Balabusta said...

For the record I grew up in Milwaukee, I learned to drive in Chicago, in the winter, at age 15. Took the interstate at 16.

Here I will list, for the benefit of you who are not married to me and may not have already heard them, the rules of the road:

1. Discretion is the better part of valor, also works for parking and snow storms.

2. What's gonna happen? - Famous last words. Basically, you don't want to find out.

3. When all else fails - HIT SOMETHING SOFT! (Then get the hell out of the way, before something hits you!)

Okay, I'm done.

Anonymous said...

My fondest memory of my college year driving in Wisconsin is that they don't plow the roads until it's DONE snowing. Which coming from Chicago seemed odd. In the winter of 89-90, I think, there was a horrible storm in March in Wisconsin. I was in school in Madison and had a wedding in Green Bay. As we drove to Green Bay, determined to make it to the hotel before shabbos, the highway got whiter and whiter, and I started seeing a lot of cars in the middle of the highway and people up to their knees in snow.

My mom was driving our old caprice classic and I was busy freaking out. We thought we saw a multi-car pile up ahead of us, and knowing we wouldn't be able to stop, my mom got off at the exit that was conveniently between us and the pile up, drove along the frontage road and got back on the highway. How she saw anything at all is still remarkable to me. We did one complete spin around after we were back on the highway but managed to not hit anything.

WE got off at what we thought was our exit in Green Bay and followed a semi off the highway. I think we'd have driven off the ramp if it weren't for him. We got to the hotel 5 hours after we left Madison and the car completely died in the driveway of the hotel.

Doesn't everyone have a Wisconsin snow story?

Ahuva said...

B"H no one was injured! I don't remember if you ever said what kind of car you were driving, but from it sounds like a Prius from the features you mentioned. My Prius drove terribly in inclement weather. After sliding several times in the rain, I learned to leave her at home and take the bus whenever it was bad out. Of course, I said "had"-- they don't hold up terribly well in accidents. I totalled mine going less than 10 miles an hour (hit a concrete pole which acted a bit like a can opener on my poor baby).

PsychoToddler said...

It's a 2007 Camry, Ahuva. I think there is a real problem with Toyota's new antilock brake system. If anyone has info on reported problems with cars not stopping in wet conditions, post a link.