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My first car crash - after 35 years of driving cars

In November last year I was in a car crash in America. No one was hurt, eventually.

It all began by me wanting to turn into a petrol pump that was on the wrong side of the road. It was evening, and the sun was setting and its full glare was right in my eyes. I had to cross oncoming traffic to get to the petrol station. I did everything right – I stopped near the entrance of the petrol station on my side of the road, I indicated I wanted to turn into the station, the lane of traffic near me stopped to allowing me space to turn, I waived at the person in the car and turned my eyes to the petrol station entrance that was about 6 feet away from me. In the blink of any eye I felt a strong jolt, the air bag in my vehicle inflated, and my car spun about 30 degrees from the impact. I was held firmly in the driver’s seat by my seat belt. But there was smoke inside the vehicle and it gingerly limped forward. As my car veered I remember yelling reactively. It was a minute or so later that I realized I was hit by another car.

I parked my car, stepped out and looked at the other car. The man was still in it and looked daze. I instinctively called the emergency number (911). A polite firm voice asked me what the emergency was, I informed him that I was involved in a car crash. Is very first question jolted me. He politely asked if I was hurt, when I said I wasn’t, he asked if someone else was hurt. I told him that the other driver was still in his car but was conscious. He asked me to wait as he sent help. Within minutes I heard the distinct sound of police cars, an ambulance and very soon a fire truck turned up too.

I was still in a daze but couldn’t help noticing how each department took charge of their responsibilities. The fire truck stopped, and two firemen got out. They put up red cones indicating the lane was no longer in use. People in cars on the same road didn’t seem perturbed, no one stopped or gawked. The traffic moved in an orderly manner. A policeman came up to me and in a brusque voice asked for my driver’s license and registration. I handed over my Indian driver’s license and told him the car was a rental. He looked at the license and asked me if I was trying to fool him as this wasn’t a valid USA license. I looked at him, smiled and told him this is what I used to get the rental car. If the car company thought it was valid, I am sure it was. He left me and went to see the other driver. I was directed to see another policeman.

Over the next 30 minutes or so, I watched an American soap opera unfold. The other driver was clearly doing his best to show he was hurt. He insisted his legs were not moving and he couldn’t get out.

He claimed the door was jammed shut. One of the senior firemen didn’t buy his story. He yanked the ‘jammed’ door that opened without a whimper. He asked the man to step out, but the man insisted he couldn’t move. Two paramedics and the fireman reached into the car, undid the driver’s seat belt, and hoisted him out. He stated he couldn’t stand so they helped him up on to his feet. They brought out a stretcher and a neck collar. They first fastened the collar to his neck then helped him lie on the stretcher. He was then taken away to the hospital. The senior fire officer came up to me, took my name and asked if I too wanted to be taken to the hospital for a checkup. I politely declined stating that I was shaken but not hurt. He gave me a warm smile and left.

All this time, the other policeman realizing that it was truly an accident asked me questions to fill in the report. In the daze I was, I couldn’t remember where I had kept the rental car papers. I requested permission to go the hotel nearby to get them thinking I had left them in my other coat pocket. He told me to go there and he would follow soon. I hunted for the paperwork found it in the laptop bag that was still with me and as I walked out of the hotel I saw the police officer driving towards me.

As I caught up with him, I handed over the papers, he could see that they were in order and that the insurance covered everything. He handed me a ticket and told me that since the other driver had to be taken to the hospital, the entire incident had to be recorded. He advised me to review the ticket and agree to the fine or contest it. His advice was that while it was an accident, the other driver had the right of way and hence by law I was wrong. I told him that since I was a foreigner I wouldn’t know the nuances of every law. I accepted my mistake. He gave me his email address and his badge number, wished me well and then took off in his car.

There were many lessons I learnt that day. Some of them were about managing one’s self and another on how civil society should behave.

I tried to piece together what I did wrong and one thing clearly stood out. American drivers believe that the lane they are in is the ONLY thing on the road they need to focus on. This is borne out by the law and the way drivers obsess about lane discipline. A big mistake I made was assuming that because cars in one of the lanes had stopped to allow me to turn, drivers in the adjoining lane would follow suit. Actually, drivers in the other lane didn’t really care, notice or even acknowledge the existence of the lane that I was focused on. The driver involved in the accident with me was clearly focused on his lane and it was I who intruded into his space. Contrast that with how we drive in India where lane markings mean nothing. Somewhere I felt the lane discipline in the USA made drivers less aware of their surroundings. They reacted to any indiscretion in their lane but sometimes the reaction came very late.

Could the accident be avoided? I tend to think so because of various factors. The first and most important one was that the accident took place about 50 meters from a traffic light that was red, so traffic should be at a complete halt or at least slowing down. But the lane the other driver was in was to turn right and in the USA most right turns are FREE (in India most left turns are FREE). That was perhaps the reason he was at a speed that prevented him from avoiding the collision with me.

Once the accident happened, there was no road rage. There wasn’t a hopping mad driver coming at me with a gun, knife or any other weapon. I might find his antics amusing considering he didn’t seem hurt but behaved like he was. But the truth is, he did what he had to, to ensure that he was taken care of. Two cars damaged in the accident were to be taken care of by repair shops and insurance companies. No crowd gathered to gawk or take sides. Everyone went about their business like it was just another normal day.

Public services such as the police, ambulance, fire trucks were focused on their responsibilities. The last job that the firemen performed was ensuring that sufficient saw dust and other type of powder was spread on the road to prevent any sort of oil spill creating problems for other drivers.

The other driver knew his rights, and later I understood a little more about why he wanted to go to the hospital. A woman was taking pictures of my rental car and the other car involved in the crash. She came up to me and inquired how it happened. I explained that the sun was in my eyes and I couldn’t see when the crash happened. She shrugged her shoulders and said it was her car and her brother was driving it. The brother then wanted to make sure his sister knew he wasn’t at fault. I couldn’t blame him.

Over the next couple of days I waited for a phone call or an email that would update me about the accident or the driver. None came. It meant the incident was technically over. While I remained tentative about the accident, I didn’t let it deter me. I hired another car and the remainder of my USA trip remained eventless. The images of the crash still surface but I think I learnt a lot more than I realized I did. Will I continue to drive in the USA? Of course I will. 

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