Monday, July 19, 2010

I Almost Died Behind the Wheel

It's been years since I've been behind the wheel of a car. My interest in transit is, partially, a response to how necessary it is in my life, the same way an automobile owner would do well to have a basic familiarity with the care and feeding of a motor vehicle. I don't have a full license for a few reasons, including but not limited to being too honest for my own good and a recalcitrant emergency brake. I've spent my adult life carfree, and I am satisfied.

A few days ago, Briana Tomkinson from the New Westminster blog Tenth to the Fraser wrote about resisting the call of the car. A lot of what she writes rings familiar, particularly how "suddenly not driving became a point of pride." Some of it doesn't, like the "pressures of... friends and countless busybodies who have nagged me... people count it as a deficiency not to drive."

Personally, I have never felt like an incomplete person because I don't have a set of wheels to call my own. I credit my current lower-middle-class lifestyle to my lack of a car; if I had to pay for those wheels, gas, insurance, maintenance, and so on, I know I would be living much closer to the knife's edge. Nor have I ever felt any driving need, let alone desire, to have a car of my own. Tomkinson's post made me ask myself why this was the case - after all, living a carfree life is hardly common, even in 2010.

I think a lot of it comes from how I nearly died behind the wheel of the family van, nine years ago. Let me tell you how it went.

A 1992 Dodge Caravan is most emphatically not the kind of tomb anyone should have.

Back in the summer of 2001, it was a different world. For me, it was a world on the cusp of great things. With my high school diploma in one hand and my acceptance letter from Trent University in the other, the road to the future was wide and bright. I'd gone through the Young Drivers of Canada training courses to steady my hands, and since then I'd driven whenever I had the opportunity. There was none of the typical "teen freedom" about it - the terms of my license demanded that someone who'd held a full G license for at least four years always be in the front passenger seat. Therefore, most of those opportunities were grocery trips, generally to the Zehrs on Bryne Drive in the South End of Barrie.

On this particular day, there was a slight complication - someone had had a bit of an accident. After nine years I can't remember precisely what the details were, but the most important factor was that it had occured directly in the intersection. Traffic was filtering through slowly with police officers on the scene to direct it, but anyone going west through the intersection was forced to curve around the accident before continuing on. We'd finished the grocery shopping, and were heading westward for home.

I can close my eyes today and still see the scene clearly, as clear as decade-old memories can get. The police officer waves me forward and I ease the van into the intersection, turning broadly around the accident scene. There's a big white 18-wheeler ahead of me at Ardagh Road, waiting to turn north onto Essa. At least, that is what it should have been doing. As I'm making my way through the intersection, I see this truck powering ahead, slowly but steadily turning.

I put on my brakes. The truck's not stopping. I realize that the driver hasn't seen me. He's not looking at the intersection or the police officers. He's looking at the accident and he's turning.

A map of the Ardagh-Essa-Bryne intersection. Solid lines indicate the direction of travel up to this point, and dotted lines the intended direction of travel subsequent to it.

Have you ever seen the wheels of a big rig close up? They're large and robust, because they have to be - trucks have been the foundation of North America's intercity freight-hauling infrastructure for decades. Today I can close my eyes and still see the wheels on this truck, still in the turn and getting ever closer. Much too close; he's still not finished his turn. I'm seeing them almost edge-on now. I can't remember what my mother or sister, who were also in the van, were doing; I can't even remember if I was screaming. All I can recall now is those wheels and the deep, crushing, absolute certainty that I was watching the last few seconds of my life go by. I could see, in my mind's eye, those wheels first reducing the hood of the van to crumpled aluminum, and then rolling along over me. I don't know if I was breathing. I wasn't prepared; how can anyone really be prepared to die, let alone a callow eighteen-year-old who's barely had a chance to build a life?

There was a hard shove, the van moved a few feet backwards despite my foot on the brake pedal, and a shattering. I was able to breathe again. My estimation of the truck's path had been just slightly off, and it was a near-miss after all. Part of the truck had impacted the van and pushed it backward, and the left taillight was broken. Its shards stayed in the middle of the intersection for days afterward. I was a wreck afterwards; from the van I went to the back seat of a Barrie Police Service cruiser, but I was so rattled that the police ended up thinking that I had been turning left onto Essa, not turning slightly left to avoid the accident. As a result, the driver of the 18-wheeler got off scot-free, so far as I know, despite the fact that if it hadn't been for him paying more attention to the accident than the road, I would have driven home safe and that would have been that.

Shortly thereafter, I went to university in Peterborough and had precious little opportunity to drive a motor vehicle, though I did rack up enough experience to get my G2. Whenever I did drive, particularly on mountainous stretches of the Interstate, I would shudder and shake whenever an 18-wheeler passed close by - I kept having visions of one making a sudden turn in my direction while I was in its driver's blind spot, and that would be the end of the whole mess.

As I said, it's been years since I've driven. Reflecting on my current situation, at this point in my life I don't trust myself behind the wheel. I know how I've reacted to split-second decisions in the past. I'm not willing to put someone else's life, or my own, in the balance for convenience. Because that's all it is; that's the black heart of modern North American culture. Convenience above all. Maybe it took the memory of that truck coming toward me, as inevitable as a rumbling avalanche, to make me realize that and to say "no." I resist the call of the car because I have seen the spot where the road ends.

You can have your cars. I'm happy without one. I refuse to accept the responsibility that comes with them.

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