Though it happened ten years ago, I still remember the exact moments before the crash. My phone was in my lap when the notification came in — a picture of a hat for that year’s Halloween costume.
Yes, I totaled my car to the point of pile-of-twisted-metal status and could’ve killed someone over a text about a hat. And no, it wasn’t worth it.
Did you know 77% of adults and 55% of teenage drivers say they can easily manage texting while driving? I used to think I was one of them until this day in question. In fact, I’d be one of the first people to cringe or turn my nose up should I see another person driving while distracted. In that holier-than-though passive-aggressive fashion coined by the ignorant, I’d grip the seat; lips pinched as I gave the driver some serious side-eye. But I never applied the judgment to myself.
And this time, the irresponsible one turned out to be me.
“Nothing bad can happen in a second”
I was in a rush to work the day of the crash. With a long drive ahead, I decided to play some music — which is not a big deal at a low enough volume. Switching the songs instead of letting them play turned into checking messages and surfing the internet at stoplights.
Eventually, I would alternate between keeping my eyes on the road and checking my phone for incoming texts from a conversation I started before the drive began.
I can still remember what the text said, along with the thumbnail photo. “How’s this?” it read. Attached was a red top hat reminiscent of Sebastian from the Little Mermaid on Broadway.
I can recall the details so vividly because after crawling out of what remained of my Pontiac to the side of the road, I made certain to burn the message I valued more than my life and the woman’s in the van ahead of me into my brain as a warning. Of what I’m still not sure, but you best believe the moral stuck in my head.
Before the accident, whenever I would drive, I’d always tell myself, “you’re not distracted driving if you’re only looking down for a second. Both of your hands are on the wheel, and nothing bad can happen in a second.”
At least I thought it was only “a second.”
The truth is “texting or reading a text takes a driver’s eyes off the road for at least 5 seconds.” (I took a direct quote because I felt the wording here was chilling enough). The same source states once distracted, it takes only 3 seconds for a crash to go down.
“I’m going to kill this woman whose head I’m hurtling toward.”
I’m not sure if it was one, three, or five seconds between me looking down at my lap and then smashing into the back of the blonde woman’s van going who knows what speed, but it happened fast.
I’d glanced up and gasped before my foot pounded the brake, but it was too late. The man in front of me decided to change lanes because the L.A. traffic, which was stop-and-go, of course, stalled in front of him. If I hadn’t been tailgating and distracted, I would’ve had plenty of time to reach the appropriate way.
Instead, in a matter of moments, it took for my car to connect with her bumper, a few thoughts crossed my mind.
The first: “I’m going to kill this woman whose head I’m hurtling toward.”
The second: “I’m going to kill myself.”
The third I don’t remember. What I do remember is the sound of my car colliding with the bike rack over her bumper — the thud, abrupt and earsplitting. The crunch of my car folding as her blonde head snapped forward.
I stayed in the vehicle blinking until the smoke grew too thick, and I told myself, “get out of the car, you asshole.” Ugly crying, I sat on the roadside as the police blocked off the collision site and came to ask questions.
My memory always goes somewhere else at this point. I take solace in the fact Scientific America points out in moments like car crashes, your brain “strips down to its most basic fight or flight responses,” and it’s not uncommon to forget.
What I do know is both of us walked out of our respective cars, I handed the woman my insurance information, put my hands up (for some reason, I imagined I would be arrested), and waited for the authorities to question me — ready to comply.
How narrowly did I avoid manslaughter because I needed to look at my phone right then? I’m not dramatic either. The NHTSA says that in 2018 itself, 2,841 people were killed in distracted driving related collisions.
I don’t remember much of what I told the officer, who treated me with kindness despite my poor choices. (Though his lips did thin considerably when I told him I’d been texting.)
“You’re the irresponsible one.”
As I sobbed on the phone to my boyfriend, who came to get me all the way from Hollywood, I’m struggling to place the woman — whether she drove away or not. Traffic started moving soon after. No ambulances. Again, I’m not sure where she went. I wish I did now in hindsight so I could apologize. I’m not sure what I told her back then, though I remember cowering when she cried, “MY BIKE RACK!” and telling her, “it was my fault, I know, I know.”
The truth is, though the van she drove was a tankard, the bike rack is the reason she drove away without a scratch, I think, or at least a lot less damage than me (I am not trying to downplay what I did at all by saying this. All I’d like to do is add a little detail).
My beautiful car was an undrivable, smoldering husk. No ambulances came, no, but a tow truck did. My boyfriend (bless that poor man) arrived around thirty minutes after.
I didn’t say much on the ride to his apartment. For a long time, I pushed the incident out of my head. As much as I could, anyway. The car sat in front of the driveway for a hot minute while we decided what to do with it. In the end, another tow truck came to take it to the junkyard. I didn’t drive again by choice for a long, long time. I took the class I needed to take for my insurance, did my best to let it go — but still, I wouldn’t until I had no other choice if I wanted to work.
The problem was I had yet to admit the issue was mine. In my mind, I blamed the driver in front of me who switched lanes, the texter, but it wasn’t until I told myself, “you’re the irresponsible one, and you owe it to yourself and everyone on the road to be an adult. Next time you could kill someone” that I was able to move past it.
Once I did get behind the wheel, I never made such a stupid mistake again, and never will. I hope this story doesn’t come off as a judgment but rather a warning of what not to do. I want to leave you all with some facts I hope speak to whoever needs to read them.
It’s just not worth it.
In a recent study (or the most recent available, really), 1,004 drivers were interviewed in a nation-wide survey. These are some stats I like to think about now when getting in the car.
- Ninety-eight percent of the interviewees admitted to knowing the dangers of texting and driver.
- Two-thirds of the ninety-eight percenters said they sent and read texts at stoplights.
- More than a quarter of the subjects said they texted and drove. (Additionally, more than a quarter of these drivers said they “can easily do several things at once, even while driving.”)
If this doesn’t disturb you, imagine how many people not surveyed would admit the same. I was a part of every group. And I can’t imagine anyone who wants to be part of worse texting and driving statistics. (This might sound like a grim joke, but I don’t need to tell you awful things happen on the road.)
Some of you might say, “oh, that’s terrible,” or “we all have to die some way” while continuing with one hand on the wheel and the other fiddling with a cell phone. (Trust me, I’ve heard this more than once while in the car. Hell to the no, you best believe I got out.)
Some might think, “it’s just a second” like I did. But I’m asking you to consider my experience and the facts before involving your phone while driving. Consider your life and others, too. It really isn’t worth it.