Words To Live By

The car that saved my life.At some point, statisticians will tally the number of people injured in 2011 in automobile accidents caused by distracted drivers. When they do, I will be someone they count. But I am more than a statistic: I am a wife, a mother, a daughter, a friend. And on December 2, 2011, because of a distracted driver, I almost became a traffic fatality.

For two days after the accident, the only people who knew what had happened were my husband and children. Then, because I could not face making multiple phone calls, I sent an email to my family and a few close friends. Here is part of the text of that email:

First: I am fine.

Second: I was involved in a car accident Friday night.

Third: I hate giving you this news via email, but I didn’t feel like making multiple phone calls to discuss something that the longer I think about, the more upset and angrier I get.

I was on my way home Friday evening, when another driver ran a red light and hit my van so hard that it flipped over, spun, and slid across an intersection until it hit a curb and stopped dead. The air bag deployed. My seat belt held (thank God I was wearing it). I was alone in the car (another thank God). My hands are shaking as I write this.

I did not see the car coming. It happened so fast and was very violent, but I did not lose consciousness and was aware of details such as the airbag deflating (poof, with a trail of dust in the air) and could see the outside world racing toward me as my car slid, upside down, diagonally across the road. I heard a scream. When the car stopped, everything was silent for a moment and then someone yelled, “Call 911.”

I had a sudden thought that maybe the car would burst into flames and then what would I do? I tried to release the seat belt but it held fast.

People appeared at my car, asking if I was alive, what my name was, how badly was I hurt? I was hanging upside down, inches from the dashboard. Most of the van’s windows had blown out, and someone crawled in through the passenger side window and released my seat belt. People helped me out through the driver’s side window. I hope I thanked them. I can’t remember.

I was able to stand and walk to the curb and sit down, where a passer-by, who said he used to be an EMT, sat with me and told me not to move my head or neck. The police arrived, then an ambulance. The EMTs fastened a collar around my neck and placed me on a hard board. They cut my shirt (but asked nicely first if I was very attached to it). They talked to me and told me to try to take deep breaths as I was hyperventilating. The police retrieved my purse and some belongings from the van.

The police, the EMTs — everyone was so wonderful. The staff at the hospital couldn’t have been nicer. I was there for several hours. I had a cat scan and x-rays (head, back, neck, shoulder). I was told that I might have some neck-muscle spasms and that I would feel worse before I would feel better. My left shoulder hurt and the fingers in my left hand were tingly as if they were falling asleep. The doctor said I might have a pinched nerve from the seat belt. I had a slight headache and my neck and back were stiff.

At some point, while I was waiting to be taken for x-rays, a police officer came into the room and went over the details of the accident with me. He said the other driver admitted to “being distracted” by his phone.

I know: I’m alive and that’s the only thing that’s supposed to matter. But I want to be “made whole” to use a cliché — or as whole as possible. I want my car back — or if that’s not possible I want a car that will protect me in the event something like this happens to me again in the future. Because that car saved my life. The roof did not buckle despite the fact that van flipped over. The air bag deployed. The seat belt held fast. The driver’s side of the car did not crumple and bend. That car saved my life.

Today I have more bruising and stiffness than I did yesterday. My back, neck, and left shoulder are stiff. My head aches. My knees and arms have bruising that is tender. All of this is manageable with ibuprofen. I know how lucky I was. But I can’t help feeling so upset about the unfairness that has been thrust upon me and my family because of the careless actions of another person.

I don’t think the driver who caused the accident meant to hurt me or anyone else. I’m sure he was horrified and wracked with guilt over what he had done. The final police report showed that he had been speeding and talking on a hand-held cell phone when he ran the light. Running a red light may be against the law, but, in Pennsylvania, driving while talking on a cell phone, hand-held or hands-free, is not. The best I can hope for is that, in the future, when he’s driving he’ll keep his hands and his mind on his car and the road.

Two weeks ago, the National Traffic Safety Board (NTSB) recommended a total ban on the use of cell phones while driving: no talking on your cell phone while holding it, no talking on your cell phone even if you have it connected to a hands-free speaker, no texting. This announcement upset a lot of people. God forbid you shouldn’t be allowed to chat on the phone while backing your car out of a parking space. God forbid you shouldn’t be allowed to chat on the phone while merging onto a highway at rush hour. God forbid you shouldn’t be allowed to chat on the phone while approaching a red light that you haven’t noticed is red.

What I would ask is this: if you have to engage in a phone conversation while driving, make it hands-free. And make it short, or pull off the road.

I wish I had a few neat, tidy sentences to tie up this post, but I don’t. I’m alive, I’m lucky, all I lost was a car which I’ve replaced. But it’s not that simple, because I’ve also lost — for lack of a better term — some peace of mind. My son takes the car out, and I worry that the same type of thing could happen to him. I see drivers with one hand on a steering wheel and the other holding a phone, and I want to flag them down and shout, “Are you crazy?” I approach an intersection with a green light and feel my stomach clench as I drive through. It’s been a month since the accident and talking about it can still make my head ache and bring me close to tears.

I know these feelings will pass. I also know that there is no phone conversation more important than the life of another person. Words to live by, people. Words to live by.

This post also appeared on Malvern Patch on January 10, 2012 where it generated a number of comments.