Last Thursday I avoided smashing my car in an accident on I-405 by being luckily in the right place at the time and by choice to not be distracted while I drove.
I was in the fast lane, next too a 2-person car pool lane, when movement across three lanes to my right caught my attention. In the slow lane, about 70 yards ahead, I noticed a white box truck, like a UPS truck but with some company’s graphics plastered on the side, turn perpendicular to the motion of traffic. What I remember most is not how many cars were on the road, their colors or positions; what I remember most is it seeming odd that a truck would suddenly face sideways, to the right, on a freeway.
The same moment this thought was starting in my head, a car struck the back of the truck, sending plastic and metal flying, mostly from the car which I think was white, or gray. The box truck looked like it would tip away from us and land on its side on the road but it stayed stable somehow, long enough to slam through the guard rail on the right side of the road, sending more debris into the air.
The freeway became a furnace of red lights but there was a noticeably absence of screeching tires or the other effects Hollywood throws into a movie. Maybe because NPR was drowning it out. Both hands on the wheel, I watched the box truck bounce off the roadway and start down an embankment toward the bottom of the cloverleaf intersection we were passing through. This is an area where 405 passes over another road and the truck left the freeway about 20 yards before a bridge over that road.
While I slowed my car I noticed three other cars collide in the right lanes, now about 30 yards ahead. Then a car in the lane to my right, no, left, because I had swerved, still slowing from a speed over 65MPH when this started, over to the right to avoid another two cars colliding in my lane. I went across two lanes to the right, now past the box truck which has disappeared out of sight as I passed by its departure point and saw another car bouncing to a stop slightly perpendicular to the flow of traffic. Its front left hood and fender was crumpled and a blue car, the only color I remember, was ‘parked’ right in front of it.
Frazzled, now only going 15MPH or so, I pulled off the road to the right just after the bridge met land again and it was safe to do so. Two other cars pulled off around me. Still stunned, and noticing traffic was almost completely stopped behind me, I got out and walked on the side of the road, with the Latino driver of a car that stopped behind me, to see what happened to the truck and if I could help. I honestly didn’t know what the hell I could do. I have training as a Red Cross First Aid/CPR instructor from many eons ago so I started scanning the other smashed cars to see if there was anyone in need.
By the time I reached the other side of the bridge, I caught my first glimpse of the box truck at an odd angle pointing down the hill, away from the freeway. It had stopped approximately 20 yards down the hill and was thankfully upright, stopping halfway before contacting the road below. Two people were walking a man who I presumed was the driver (workman’s blue shirt with company logo on the side) back up the hill through low, green scrub brush. A heavyset black woman, her cell phone held away from her left ear, yelled, “He’s alright!” twice and then I scanned the road.
Cars were slowly weaving between the wreckage of what I could see as wat least three individual collisions. The accident closest to my car, the one furthest from the truck, showed two people out of their cars and talking. Another couple of cars in the center of the road, on the bridge itself, were also out and talking. I couldn’t make out another pileup closer to the truck’s departure point as a lot of cars were passing by it, obscuring it, and there were a lot more people out of their cars at that point.
Feeling useless, I stayed on the walkway on the side of the bridge for a moment. To my left, the way I came, was now a mass of cars. Some moving, some smashed, some parked and waiting their turn to pass through. To my right was one accident scene and two streams of cars passing it on either side. Beyond that was almost perfectly open road; five lanes of freeway in all with only a few cars jetting away from the scene.
A few things went through my head at this point and previously. One is that I left my cell phone in my car and that wasn’t smart. Another, while walking to the truck, was that I should have had my camera. Hell, I had two in my car, why didn’t I bring them? At one point I almost went back but then I realized something about myself; I’m not that kind of photographer. Sure, I could have maybe sold an image to a news service (there are also apps for this now) but of what? It was a car wreck and other than being a thing of oddity in my day, it wasn’t really news. I didn’t want to photograph people in pain, if they were, unless it would actually benefit others to see the same thing. This wasn’t war crimes in Syria, this was just a bad car accident.
I also realized I lacked training and knowledge of how to help others in this type of situation. I lacked initiative to really be involved. I didn’t know what the heck I should be doing. I want to change that because I want to be of help to others in the future. It was this lack of training that also made me realize I didn’t observe well enough and that I would be no help in describing what happened. I can relate it here, but the details are still very fuzzy. Colors of cars, chain of events as they actually happened (as compared to what I think happened), none of that would be of any help, I don’t think.
The last thing I remember as I walked back to my car was the sound of plastic and metal crunching under tires from those lucky enough to get through the scene and motor on their way. I sat in my car for a moment and I felt like crying but I didn’t know why. I felt a little helpless, maybe that was it. I felt lucky to not have left the house just four seconds sooner otherwise I might have been involved.
Accelerating down a nearly vacant freeway is odd and it didn’t help my feeling of unease, of driving away when maybe I should have stayed and helped. But I have been a proponent of the saying, “If you can’t help, get out of the way.” I was not helping and it seemed to me that most everyone was either okay enough to stand outside their car or well tended to by others who didn’t forget their cell phones.
My reason for relating this story is not for your empathy. My reason is to remind you that it’s not *you* causing an accident while driving distracted that you should only worry about. It’s your ability to react to the situation outside of your control. When I have typed on my phone in the car I think I can pay attention to what’s going on around me. I think I know where other cars are in my mirrors and ahead. The truth is, I’m not as superhuman as I’d like to think.
The way I avoided being embroiled in this chain reaction of collisions across three or four lanes of traffic was because my eyes and brain were outside of my car, looking forward. The initial accident was off to my right and not noticeable if I was distracted with a shrunken periphery. I was able to follow the chain of events from the truck to cars hitting each other in my path of travel because I was reasonably alert. It started to the right but it moved in front of me. I knew where I had room to maneuver because I had been checking my mirrors.
I’m not a perfect driver. I’ve hit things I shouldn’t have hit and I’ve done things that aren’t completely legal while on the road. I’m not holier than thou. But last Thursday I went on about my day, helped a client with some photo work and returned home to kiss loved ones. No visit to the hospital, no insurance forms to fill out, no police report to file. Luck, fate, timing….all that came into play I suppose. As I mentioned, leaving my house four seconds sooner would have meant I would have been swerving hard or hitting/being hit by other cars.
Some of that came into play. But what really helped make this story have a happy ending for me, is that I was paying attention to my most important task at that time; driving.
Please try to be less distracted the next time you are flying down the road at 60MPH or even 20MPH. I’m not perfect and neither are you, but we bot can do better at not texting or web surfing, not daydreaming excessively and not reaching for that one thing in the back seat that can really just wait until we are at a stop light to be grabbed. Just about everything we do to distract ourselves in a moving vehicle can wait until later. We take chances and get cocky when we do distract ourselves and nothing bad happens.
Let this be a gentle reminder that bad things do happen to good people. Stack the odds in your favor when you are behind the wheel.
Pay attention and drive safely, please.