Fender Bender

Sometimes I sit up in the darkness
And I watch my baby as she sleeps
Then I climb in bed and I hold her tight
I just lay there awake in the middle of the night
Thinking ’bout the wreck on the highway
—-Bruce Springsteen, Wreck on the Highway

I was driving home from the library after having dropped off a stack – the traffic was heavy and jittery in a late rush-hour need to get home right now way. Everyone was driving faster than they should. This is on a neighborhood artery – Arapaho Road – six lanes, lots of stoplights, lots of in-and-out. I’ve seen too many fender benders in this sort of tumult so I took a deep breath, slowed down, and kept my eyes open.

I could see a clot of cars ahead of me forming around the railroad tracks. Behind me, I saw a car coming up fast, winding between the commuters, swerving between lanes. It was an ordinary ambiguous American sedan, some unidentifiable dark color, with a long dent, more like a big scrape, all down the left side. I could see the driver’s smooth round head sticking up – at first I thought they must be very short but I realized they were simply reclined, sitting back, one hand idly resting on the wheel. I noticed the nonchalant aggression of the driving, the macho languid position of the driver, and the evidence of past indiscretions and said to myself, “This person is about to have an accident.”

They pulled up to within inches of my rear bumper and as I touched my brakes to prepare for the stopped traffic ahead the car immediately swung to the right into the parking lane and used it to dash if front of me. I slowed down some more and watched as the car darted back into traffic right in front of me and immediately smashed into the halted cars.

There is the ubiquitous sound of accidents. The sudden screech of brakes, the squeal of rubber sliding on concrete. Then a fateful  BANG! – a concussion wave that pushes against your head and drills into your ears. That is the crossing point when you know an accident, not a near-miss, has actually occurred. The irrevocable forces of chaos and entropy have been unleashed. After that the sound of rending metal as all three of Newton’s Laws of Motion work together to run up huge bills at the body shop. Finally, the tinkling coda as glass falls and shatters onto the unforgiving concrete.

I watched the crumpling as the rear of the car rose and then fell back. The trunk of the car in front flew open, forced straight up like a huge metal surrender flag. It wasn’t that bad of an accident, nothing more than the usual fender bender, thousands happen every day, but it is always such a shame. I’m not a car person, but when I see something like this I always think of the thousands of hours that went in to building the car and the tens of thousands of hours spent working to pay off a car loan. There is that beam of pride smile when someone shows off their new ride.

All torn asunder in a moment of testosterone.

A few years ago I was driving back home from the gym with Nick and Lee in the car. We were coming up Skillman and getting ready to cross the LBJ 635 Interstate. That’s a nasty little intersection, with a half-dozen busy roads all coming together in a confusing, curving snarl. Now that I think about it, it was the same time of day – late, evening starting to set in, not dark yet, everybody tired and in a hurry. Coming up to the light at the frontage road I saw that the green light was beginning to get the slightest hint of yellow. Looking ahead, I saw someone coming the other way in the left turn lane. He was accelerating, obviously going to try and cut me off, run the left turn in front of me before the light turned red. I’m not going to play chicken with my car so I started to brake.

Looking in my rear view mirror I saw a custom souped-up compact speeding up right on my tail. I could read his mind, “Oh shit! don’t tell me that asshole in the crappy mini-van is going to stop on that yellow light. I have places to be, I’m not going to wait.” I knew he was going to dart around me and run the light.

I think Nick had just picked up his learner’s permit and Lee was only a year behind. I told them, “Hey, watch this, there is about to be a car wreck.” They perked up, looking a little confused.

The car behind me roared as his glass-packs spewed exhaust when he stomped the accelerator and squealed around me. Meanwhile, the other car made his left turn toward the frontage road.

It was only a glancing blow. A quick POP! and a grind as the two scraped past each other. But the car from behind me lost his front right tire and careened in a quick curve until he smacked the bridge wall pretty hard. His car climbed the concrete and if it hadn’t hung up on the steel guard rail that ran a foot above the top of the wall he probably would have hurtled over and fallen into the eight lanes of heavy Interstate traffic screaming by thirty feet below.

Nick and Lee were flabbergasted. I glanced – their mouths were hanging open.

“How did you know that was going to happen?” they both said.

I did my fatherly duty and explained how important it is to pay very close attention to what is going on, to always check your mirrors, and to not be too aggressive or too fast.I don’t drive through that intersection very often but when I do I always make note of the bent guard rail about a third of the way across the bridge.

I’m afraid I didn’t stop in either case. I do feel bad about that, I kept on driving like nothing had happened. It was obvious that nobody was hurt – and there were plenty of others around that would be more than willing to get involved in a minor traffic brouhaha.

Plus, I may be going slow, but I have places to be too.

Today, I have to go to work. I hate slaving through the weekend. While I’m there, you can enjoy this video:

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