The first time my dad let me drive the family car, I hopped a curb, blew out a tire, and bent the rim.
It was an indicator of things to come.
It’s not that I consider myself a bad or incompetent driver. It just so happens that everyone else I know doesn’t happen to wreck a car once a year or so. Whether I’m driving slow or fast, in a newer car or a prehistoric model, the results are the same. Now, it seems that I’m keeping my head on a constant swivel to spot oncoming traffic. I’ve done just about everything except having a shaman lay hands upon the hood of my car in a ritual of protection. But, now that I think of it, that might be the next logical step.
The fun began during my senior year of high school, soon after I completed driver’s ed and received my learner’s permit. Dad had let me take the wheel of our 1996 Camry on the way home from school one day. I was holding my own — driving very cautiously, at exactly 35 miles per hour. The car behind us was following fairly closely. My father, being overly concerned, urged me to pull over to the side of the two-lane road and let the tailgater pass. I turned the wheel and put my foot on the brake.
At least I thought I did. I confused the brake with the gas pedal and slammed into the short curb, wrecking the tire and the wheel. My father, not usually known for his patience, calmly replaced the tire with the spare. There were no accusatory words, no lectures. But then, it was his fault anyway.
The rest of my short life as a teenage motorist was not nearly that dramatic. I failed my driving test twice, thanks to nerves and the strictures of a burly and officious “woman” instructor. The frustration and embarrassment of failing the test put me off of driving for years; I made do with rides from my friends and occasionally my parents.
I didn’t risk that kind of humiliation again until four years later, when my approaching college graduation and a new long-distance relationship made it worth trying to get my hands on that little laminated card that would afford me the status of an adult. I passed the tests this time and returned for my last semester of college — my first as a licensed driver — with that same 1996 Camry, now with roughly 205,000 miles on the odometer.
Things went great until graduation. Then, I learned that no one is safe when I’m behind the wheel at 7 a.m., least of all yours truly. Consider the following timeline:
Fall 2004, between 7:30 and 8 a.m. Driving through the neighborhood adjacent to my parents’ home, I was following a woman in a BMW. We approached a stop sign. I cruised to a rolling stop behind her, assuming that she would pause for just a moment before making her right turn. She lingered, I didn’t stop rolling soon enough, and CRACK. No injuries, some minor body damage, a major insurance hike from Allstate. Three years and one switch to Geico later, I still roll my eyes every time I hear the guy from “24” tell me that I’m in good hands.
October 13, 2005, 7:15 a.m. This one is legitimately scary. I was then living in an apartment with good pal Mikey, and in order to get out of our development I had to make a left turn with my head on a constant swivel, as a bend in the road obscured traffic coming from the left, and there wasn’t much more visibility from the right. On this morning, I was bound for the train station and, though I was a bit ahead of schedule, I was a little sloppy in my road check. I glanced left, looked right, and pulled out without checking back to the left.
I heard the car horn and froze for a split second, just long enough for the oncoming driver to T-bone my car. I remember the sound of impact, the pain of my head banging off of the window, the feeling of helplessness as my Camry fishtailed in a small circle and drifted to rest against the curb. Amazingly, neither one of us was injured. I even thought I could drive away, until I restarted the car and turned the steering wheel, and a police officer noticed how badly my front driver’s side axle was bent.
My 10-year-old car with 217,000 miles on it had breathed its last. A shiny 2001 Corolla with much lower mileage soon took its place, and all seemed well. Until …
October 18, 2006, 7:25 a.m. Yep, almost exactly one year had passed. Again, I was just rolling through the suburbs on my way to the train, not particularly paying attention, when I came around a curve and failed to realize that the school bus parked on the other side of the street to pick up kids meant that I should STOP. I looked up, saw a Honda Accord sitting in front of me, and frantically jerked my wheel to the left, aiming for the empty turning lane. Too late. I rear-ended the Accord, and, to top it off, was rear-ended in turn by an SUV. Once more, there were no injuries. Once more, my car was a total loss. Now I was getting spooked.
In the year since my last accident, I’ve been driving another Toyota — another hand-me-down from my folks. This one is a 1993 Camry, a car that has been around since Bill Clinton moved into the White House and the Toronto Blue Jays terrorized the good baseball-loving people of America. It currently has 145,000 miles, not too bad for its age. It gets the job done. But for how long?
I spent October exhorting myself to take extra precautions every time I drove, to be hyper-aware of my surroundings, to not screw up. I gripped the wheel with bone-white knuckles and thought of my $210-a-month insurance premium and of my meager savings account that probably isn’t ready for another vehicle purchase.
I somehow made it through the whole month with my car and my sanity intact. Ultimately, all these experiences may have even helped me become a better driver. I think I’ve become a bit more alert when I drive, a little more patient.
Still, if you happen to drive anywhere in the D.C. area, just be glad I take the train to work.