“The ambiguous role of the car crash needs no elaboration—apart from our own deaths, the car crash is probably the most dramatic event in our lives, and in many cases the two will coincide. Aside from the fact that we generally own or are at the controls of the crashing vehicle, the car crash differs from other disasters in that it involves the most powerfully advertised commercial product of this century, an iconic entity that combines the elements of speed, power, dream and freedom within a highly stylized format that defuses any fears we may have of the inherent dangers of these violent and unstable machines.”
“We have annexed the future into the present, as merely one of those manifold alternatives open to us. Options multiply around us, and we live in an almost infantile world where any demand, any possibility, whether for life-styles, travel, sexual roles and identities, can be satisfied instantly.”
For me, the most amazing aspect of a car crash – even the simplest fender bender – is the sound. The sharp snap of breaking safety glass, the thud of impact, the groaning of thick bending metal. Behind it all is the sound of entropy increasing, of the inevitable disaster that lies behind the veneer of our day to day lives. The reality forced upon us that there is no going back… time only runs one way.
A car crash harnesses elements of eroticism, aggression, desire, speed, drama, kinesthetic factors, the stylizing of motion, consumer goods, status — all these in one event. I myself see the car crash as a tremendous sexual event really: a liberation of human and machine libido (if there is such a thing).
—-J. G. Ballard
I saw something very strange on the drive in to work today. To see something, anything, different along the route I drive every morning, have for well over three thousand times now, is strange in and of itself… to see something strange is double strange.
First, I remember moving to Texas. Like anyplace that is of itself, Texas has a few things to get used to – two driving things, for example.
First, people park facing the wrong way on residential streets all the time. Anywhere else – this will get you towed immediately… in Texas, it makes no difference – half the cars are on the left hand side.
Second, people run lights. I remember moving here, hitting a yellow and going, thinking to myself, “Wow, that was close, probably should have stopped.” Then I would look in my mirror and a half dozen cars would be running through after me.
The other side is when that light turns green, don’t jump out right away, wait for everyone to come to a stop.
At any rate, I was on my way to work (had some equipment to haul and was driving instead of riding my bike) and waiting at a long, busy red light… you know the one, the one at Grove and Centennial , with the McDonald’s and the Chilly Mart across from me. The light turned red as I arrived, so I was the first one in the ever-growing line, waiting for the light to change.
The cross light went from red to yellow to green and I looked up to make sure the traffic was stopped. A small black car was approaching on my left with a huge dumptruck behind. I assumed both would run through, so I waited. To my surprise, the small car braked hard and stopped at the light – I think there was a little brake squeal.
The truck behind didn’t expect him to stop, and plowed right into the rear of the car. It had one of those huge steel bumpers, set high, and completely smashed in the trunk of the car. There was that POP-Bang-Crunch of metal rending in a crash. The impact pushed the little car through the intersection like a pebble from a slingshot. As it passed in front of me, I thought, “Good, it is past the intersection, I can drive through, I won’t be late for work.”
Then came the strange part.
The car never stopped. It just kept on driving. Because I was first in line I could see around the bend to the right for quite a distance, maybe half a mile, and the car didn’t slow down – it simply sped away. I guess the high bumper on the truck smashed in the trunk without damaging the wheels or anything important, as far as moving goes.
The car disappeared around the curve and I turned back to see the truck – it didn’t have a scratch. That huge slab of rusty steel bumper looked indestructible. There was a surprisingly small amount of debris in the intersection… my light was green… I couldn’t think of any reason not to… so I drove through and went to work.
So why did the car drive away like that? The accident was 100% the fault of the truck and it was a commercial vehicle – basically, insurance would buy the guy a new car.
I can only think of a few possibilities.
One, the car was stolen… but I don’t think that would happen at that hour of the morning.
The most probable reason was the driver had warrants and didn’t want to deal with the cops.
Or maybe the driver was a complete idiot and didn’t realize the rear of his car was smashed in like that (doesn’t make sense, I know).
All in all, a pretty strange thing to watch on a morning commute.
One of the highlights on the drive from Dallas to New Orleans is crossing the Mississippi river on the Horace Wilkinson Bridge going into Baton Rouge on Interstate Highway 10. It’s also a lowlight, because the traffic through Baton Rouge is usually awful and it is often stop and go all the way back over the bridge.
This trip is wasn’t so bad. Now that I think about it, the last two drives I made to New Orleans were over Mardi Gras… and there were a million other folks doing the same thing. Also, there is so much construction around Baton Rouge – after Katrina a lot of people fled the Big Easy a few miles north to the capital, which sits on ground a few feet higher… at least it’s above sea level. Interstate 10 and the feeder roads are being rebuilt and that makes for slow going.
Like I said, this trip wasn’t so bad – no stop and go, only a little slowing here and there. There were no full closures due to construction, but there was still a lot of work going on. Out of Baton Rouge and into the swamps was all narrow, crowded, and fast – speed and steel.
There is no choice. You are rapidly carried along by the inexorable stream of metal, rubber, gasoline, and flesh. Bumper to bumper, going seventy five miles an hour, with cars closed in on both sides, lanes narrowed by construction cones, equipment belching diesel fumes flying by only a few feet away… that is life in this best of all possible worlds. So I am being as careful as possible, concentrated, both hands on the wheel, staring straight ahead.
So I saw it. Had a really good look at it, for a slice of a split second.
It was about the size of my head.
When it appeared from under the giant eighteen wheel truck in front of me, I saw the round shape rolling and I hoped that it was a chunk of Styrofoam, but I knew it wasn’t. I knew it was concrete.
At seventy-five, more than a mile a minute, there isn’t much time when there is something in the road right in front of you like that. It is amazing how much goes through your mind in the tiny bit of time before the collision.
I knew I was looking at a hunk of debris abandoned by the workers alongside the highway and somehow flung out into the shooting line of speeding vehicles. I fought my first reflexive urge to swerve – I knew there were cars right alongside me in both lanes. Avoidance would be suicidal. At that speed a hit on a tire would probably flip the car – certain death again. My unconscious lizard brain quickly found whatever knowledge it had of the stuff under the car – drive train, fuel lines, and exhaust system and came up with the impression of hunks of strong steel about a third of the way in from the tires.
Of course, I can remember thinking this afterward – but didn’t know I was thinking it at the time. There was not enough time. It was pure survival reflex. A tiny adjustment of the steering wheel to put the chunk right there… and it was gone.
At first there was the sound. A tremendous thump as concrete met steel. The amount of power involved at those speeds is almost unimaginable. We all drive that fast all the time – I have to purposefully will the physics involved out of my head – otherwise I would freak out. Along with the sound there is a feeling of a punch as the car jumps… and that’s it, we’re past.
I glanced at the rearview and saw with horror as the concrete, now a spinning blur, jumped up about six feet into the air. The car behind me took a little swerve, as I did, and the missile missed its windshield and then disappeared. That was it… I have no idea what happened behind me. The past is over and done before you even know what hit you.
Then there was the smell. Awful. The sharp acid of vaporized iron and a burned odor of concrete pulverized into lonely molecules. It filled the car immediately and was as frightening as the sight of the projectile itself.
There wasn’t much I could do right away. As the odor dissipated I began to test what I could. I moved the wheel a bit back and forth and tapped the brakes gingerly. All seemed to be fine. I smelt for gas from a ruptured fuel line and looked for brake fluid on the road, but saw nothing.
At the next exit I pulled off and rolled into a little rough grassy lot. I crawled down and peered under the car. The plastic boot on the front had a nice new crack and, looking from the front, I saw a line of fresh scars running down the heavy steel support beam. It was scratched, but unbroken. I had hit the thing exactly right, it had rolled along the almost indestructible beam, avoiding any of the valuable or vulnerable organs across the belly of the car.
We climbed back in and finished the drive to New Orleans.
I don’t like to think about stuff like this too much. I mean, I know I should be thankful it wasn’t any worse than it was. But I can’t help but think about how lucky we were – what if the concrete was a little bigger, or had hit a tire, or smashed a steering strut. I really don’t like to think about that bouncing rolling ball of death that kept going down the crowded highway behind me.
But in the end, you have to do what you have to do. I do have to thank the lizard brain stem that can out-think a chunk of concrete the size of my head at seventy-five miles an hour.
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: