It’s the habits that keep you safe

I was in a car accident Friday night, the first time I’d every been in any kind of accident, and the thing that struck me about it was the sheer amount of force involved. I was stopped at a light, had been stopped for a while, when this girl ran into me from behind.

She couldn’t have been going very fast, because traffic was bad and we’d been inching forward for about 20 minutes. I didn’t see it coming.

The first thing was the huge bang, and being flung forward. My foot came off the brake and my car was pushed forward. In that weird time-slows-down mind state I saw the car in front of us, realized we were going to hit them, slammed on my brakes.

At first I was like, whoa that was close, I almost hit someone. I thought that maybe I should have had my foot more firmly on the brake, because then we wouldn’t have moved forward like that and almost hit someone. Really, though, that’s wrong, because the fact that some of the energy propelled us forward actually protected us. The more we went forward the less impact had to be absorbed by the car and our bodies. Of course, if the car had crumpled we might not have been thrust back and forward again, which has hurt my neck pretty bad.

I’m thinking of it as a conservation of momentum problem. In the aftermath I realized that if I had only looked at my speedometer as we were pushed forward I could have used the masses of our cars to calculate how fast she was going.

It doesn’t really matter how fast she was going, but I’m curious. I don’t really understand how it happened. Because, she hit us pretty hard, and I don’t know how she got going so fast.

The masses of our cars were about the same, which is lucky, again from a conservation of momentum perspective. My car is little, and if hers had been a big truck the damage would have been a lot worse. Much more kinetic energy to be absorbed.

The thing that struck me was just how little control I had over the situation. I didn’t see it coming, but even if I had there wouldn’t have been anything I could do about it. There wasn’t any place for me to move my car to. There also just wasn’t any time to react. I had time for exactly one action, which was braking. Even then, the only thing that gave me the time to do that was the fact that I had stopped well before the car in front of me. I can remember times when I didn’t do that. When I stopped pretty close to the car in front of me.

Because there wasn’t any time, no time to think or plan, the things that kept me safe were the things I did out of habit. Driving with my hands on the wheel. Keeping my foot on the brake. Braking when I see someone in front of me. Stopping several feet before the next car. Keeping my insurance up to date.

I didn’t know whether my insurance would cover it. She doesn’t have insurance. She doesn’t have insurance, which means that if I didn’t have uninsured motorist coverage I would be out of luck. I would be stuck paying 3k in car repairs, and who knows how much in medical bills.

I never appreciated car insurance before this. When I bought my car I bought insurance through the same company my parents used, just because I was familiar with it. They gave me some options and I picked some things, never thinking it would apply to me because I’d never been in an accident and I’m a very careful driver. I didn’t remember whether I had opted for the personal injury protection (yes) or the uninsured motorist (yes.) Those decisions seemed so random and not very important, and it’s weird how incredibly important they have now become. I feel incredibly lucky to have insurance. I also feel incredibly angry that another driver would drive an uninsured car, and then be paying so little attention to her driving that she would plow into a parked car. I’m sure she never planned on getting in an accident, either. I can even see how, if you didn’t have much money but you needed to get to work you might drive a car without insurance, thinking that you’ll only be hurting yourself. But, it doesn’t just hurt you. My uninsured motorist insurance is not as good as what it would be if you hit me and had insurance. My premiums won’t go up, because it’s been ruled not my fault, but I’ve filed a claim which means I lose the safe driving record bonus.

Once you get in an accident you can’t go back and fix things, and it happens too fast for any decision you make to greatly affect the outcome. Think about your habits, think about the safety mechanisms in place, think about the harm you can do to other people.

(If you’re in the 84% of washington drivers who have insurance this isn’t for you.)

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