Wednesday, September 15, 2004

It's Only a Matter of Time...

I used to tell myself that phrase as I'd pass by wrecks on the highway on my way to work. Some days, I'd feel that my driving experience and skill would keep me out of harm's way forever (a somewhat naive thought, yes), while other days I'd do the math and realize that someday, my number's going to come up.

How long has it been? Six years? Seven? I've been commuting 100 miles every day for longer than I care to think. I've put roughly 238,000 miles on two cars. Sometime, someplace, I would finally be put in a situation that I couldn't escape, and sure enough, fate finally caught up to me on Tuesday.

I was exiting the 90/94 Westbound ramp at about 55mph with the rest of rush hour traffic attempting to merge on to 294 Southbound. The problem with this ramp is that the 90/94 Eastbound ramp also comes up and becomes a second on-ramp lane to the right of our lane, and faster, more aggressive cars will shoot across our lane in an attempt to set up a 5 lane crossing in order to get to the I-Pass lanes at the toll on the far left a few miles down the highway.

I'm not exactly sure if that's what happened, but as I was looking in my left-hand mirror to check the speed of traffic in the lane to my left (I too needed to make a 4 lane crossing to eventually get to that I-Pass), I caught some quick velocity change movement in my peripheral vision (directly in front of me). Before my eyes even moved to look ahead, my foot was already on the way to the brake pedal. The minivan in front of me was on the brakes hard, and now so was I. I took a deep breath as I kept my tires from locking up and quickly realized that I was going to stop a good seven to ten feet short of hitting the mini-van. Normally this is a good thing, but we're on not only a highway and at almost a dead-stop, but we're still in an on-ramp that has cars accelerating attempting to get up to the 75mph traffic typically moves at through this section.

I glanced into my rearview mirror, and to my very distinct horror, I saw the Chevy Tahoe barreling down my lane behind me maybe 40 yards back. It wasn't slowing down, in fact, it appeared to be slightly nose-up. It was accelerating. I tapped my brake once to hopefully get his attention, and then got off my brake so I would close the distance to the Nissan mini-van ahead of me. I know people have to describe things like this all the time for these situations, but this whole thing wend down in maybe 3 whole seconds. I got as close as I dared (maybe a foot?) to the mini-van's bumper, and checked my mirror one more time. The Tahoe was hard on its brakes at this point, possibly even sliding, but it was too late. It was maybe ten yards back and still moving way too fast to stop in time. It was too late for me to get out of the lane. I hadn't had time to scan the lanes on either side of me to see if I had room to pull out (since I had to stop as soon as I had started checking in the first place), so I couldn't risk pulling out of this lane in front of another vehicle that was doing 75mph. I just stared straight ahead so my neck wouldn't be in the wrong position when I got hit and grabbed the wheel with both hands.

The shot to my back from the truck hurt pretty bad initially. It's certainly the hardest and most "completely" I've ever been rear ended (I've had one other car "tap" me in line for a toll and another car glance off the corner of the bumper). The impact knocked the wind out of my lungs, causing me to involuntarily yell on impact, and sent my car forwards hard enough that I immediately bounced off of the mini-van in front of me I was being so careful to avoid. I luckily had remembered a lesson way back in Driver's Ed, which states that if you can tell you're going to be rear-ended, don't stand on the brake. I don't remember exactly why they said this, but I think it has something to do with inertia and energy transfer. That if you're coasting and off the brake, the vehicle's energy behind you will transfer into velocity for you, like one pool ball striking another pool ball. If you stand on the brake, I think the implication is more like you're now an immovable (not totally) object, and more of the impacting vehicle's inertia will be transferred into damage and compression in your vehicle's crumple zones. Seeing as my car is less than half of the mass of the SUV that hit me, I really didn't want to get crumpled.

Evidently getting off the brakes right before impact saved my car from being totalled. Amazingly, after I got out, it didn't even appear to be all that damaged. In fact, the front end looked the worst as I had gone slightly under the bumper of the mini-van and bent up my hood a bit. I was fully expecting to see my rear bumper inside of my trunk with the trunk folded in half like a closet door on its side, and yet the car hardly appears to have been involved in an accident. My back and neck were throbbing however, and people driving by probably were wondering why the three of us had even pulled over. I'm sure the damage to the car wasn't even visible from the road.

At any rate, I would find out later from the driver of the Tahoe (a very nice man, who by the way had just raised his deductable from $250 to $500 earlier that day, irony of ironies) that his son probably saved my life. He hadn't put it that way, of course, but he never even noticed that we were almost completely stopped in front of him. He (like myself) had been looking in his mirror and peering out onto the highway to look for holes in traffic so he could merge left, only he never saw the stoppage. His son was the one that noticed it, and had yelled for his Dad to stop. If he hadn't, I probably would have been rear-ended by a vehicle travelling over 65mph that was more than twice the mass of my own car. To be honest, when I saw it coming at me in my rear-view with its nose still up, my first thought was that I might be next looking at my wife and baby from a hospital bed, if I even got to see them again at all.

Speaking of ironies (see deductable above), the kid that mitigated the damage from this accident was probably the incidental core of it (besides the ass-hat who cut off the car in front of the mini-van). His father (the Tahoe driver) was taking him to a college expo at the Marriot in Oak Brook. They wouldn't have even been on the road if it weren't for him.

And more ironic still? My rental vehicle? A GMC Envoy XL. No, seriously, the huge-assed SUV comes in EXTRA FUCKING LARGE sizes. Jesus H. Christ, it was the only thing they had left, and it seats SEVEN. COMFORTABLY. I'M DRIVING A GOD-DAMNED BUS WITH QUITE POSSIBLY THE BEST STEREO SYSTEM, CUPHOLDERS, AND MORE LIGHTER OUTLETS THAT ANY BUS HAS EVER SEEN. Just what I need. A gas guzzler for my 100 mile/day commuter. I'm sure my gas bill will be like $100/week. Woo-hoo! (And yes, I already have a standing order to downgrade me to the Dodge Neon as soon as one comes in. The Envoy was the only vehicle on the lot, and they're renting it to me at the Neon rate. I figure even with the savings on the rental price, I'm losing $80/week on the gas.)

And as if I thought the accident wasn't scary enough to live through, I come home to find out that my insurance company had mistakenly dropped me from the policy a year and a half ago. Let me clarify. Due to a clerical error on behalf of Liberty Mutual, I have been driving without insurance for the past year and a half, unbeknownst to me. They tried to weasel out of it, saying that it's my fault for not catching it on the renewal forms, when the renewal forms for both auto and home have a multiple vehicle discount for one car. Can you smell the fucking incompetence? It's rank. I got about 4 hours of sleep last night contemplating what would have happened had I been in an unfortunate position where I caused an accident where someone was hospitalized. Then, I woke up on Tuesday, and set about finding an alternate insurance carrier, and dropped Liberty Mutual like a, well, a horribly fucking irresponsible insurance company that they are.

Lessons learned in the last two days:

1). Always have an escape route.
2). Keep buying Hondas. Their collision absorption/deflection is AMAZING (my wife can also testify to this, as did the Tahoe driver who ALSO thought that his bumper was going to be visiting my backseat. He was still marvelling an hour later at how well that bumper took the shock out of the collision).
3). Check your renewal forms for insurer incompetence.
4). Never, ever, not even for a million dollars insure your family with Liberty Mutual.

Email me if you want as I have lots and lots of experience in this arena. Definitely let me know who the Tahoe's insurer is, 'kay? And I'm v.v. glad you're okay.
Scary stuff - glad you're ok! Guess I'll keep buying Hondas too. ;-)
Jeeeebus, that's scary! Glad you're okay and you remembered all your driver's ed stuff.

We got rear-ended the same way (ass in front of us stopped instead of merging) and the 17 year old behind me wasn't paying attention. I turned to look out the back window when Keith yelled right before we got hit. Necks don't like that.
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