Monday, September 14, 2009

At Fault

Okay, so I think I'm finally ready to talk about the car accident. It happened exactly six months ago today. It's my second car accident in L.A., the third in my entire life, and the first (and, obviously, I hope the only) where I was completely, thoroughly, undeniably at fault.

I was working at Reveille Studios at the time, which is up in North Hollywood. I live in Culver City. That's an 18.5 mile commute one way; so about a 40 mile round trip every workday. Not really unusual for L.A., but that doesn't make it any more pleasant. Even with traffic, the freeway is the quickest way to go.

I was being run through the ringer at work. Really stressed out. Most days, I had to stay late. And when I say "late," I don't mean an hour or two -- I'm talking 1 AM or so. A better manager than myself would not have had to stay quite so late. I acknowledge that. And I'm certainly not trying to lay blame for the accident on my job. I'm merely stating the circumstances. The situation was -- to use a word that's very popular these days -- unsustainable.

According to the police report, my accident happened at about 1:16 AM. I was traveling west on I-10. I wasn't speeding; in fact, I was going 5 below the limit because my exit was coming up. That's right... I was so close to making it home unscathed. I wasn't tired; although I'm sure, biologically, my brain probably wasn't firing on quite the speed it ought to be. There was more than a safe distance between me and the cars ahead of me -- I'd have to say a good 30 yards. I probably would have been safer had I been closer to the vehicles in front of me; I would have noticed them subtly slowing down sooner. Because what I didn't see was that the CHP was intentionally slowing traffic down by weaving a police car across several lanes. There had already been an accident up ahead, and they were slowing traffic down in order to make things safer.

Yeah, irony doesn't get much more tragic than that.

Since traffic was being slowed down ever so gradually, people's brake lights weren't engaging. So I'm just zipping right along at 60 MPH, looking forward to making my exit, when I'm suddenly confronted with a sea of red brake lights. Now I can see that traffic has come almost to a complete stop. I slam on the brakes, creating that horrifying screeching sound. I notice that the lane to my left has a little more space -- maybe an extra car length or two. So I try to veer into that -- I'll take all the extra room I can get, although I can tell I don't have enough space anywhere.

The majority of the impact was taken by the left rear of a Honda Civic. Looked to be a rather old model -- mid-90s. It was loaded with a group of four or five teens, probably in their later high school years.

Another car was involved in the accident, and I'm not quite sure where he figured in. He took some very minor scuffing and denting on his right side. I'm not sure if my car hit his, or if I pushed the kids into him. At any rate, he was walking away from this accident with virtually no damage.

My eyes were dry and stinging from the powder they use to pack the air bag. An officer came running past my window -- why was there already an officer on the scene? "Are you all right?" he yelled. Considering I'd just been in a high-speed accident, things seemed somewhat okay. He continued on toward the next vehicle, and started talking into his handset. "Yeah, they had another accident back here."

I looked behind me, hoping that someone else had crashed into me first. I couldn't have been the one to cause all this, could I?

Alas.

So the two other cars and I pulled off to the side of the freeway, joining the cars that had already been involved in what I was just learning was a previous accident. I was amazed that I had only impacted two cars besides my own. In my previous L.A. accident -- also on an L.A. freeway, and which I was very much NOT at fault for -- the guy who slammed into me had been going so fast that he ended up involving six additional cars! Thank God I hadn't done nearly that much damage. But both my car and the Honda were clearly total losses. The other car, as I said, had minor damage. (I'm sure we coulda buffed that out.)

The accident occurred near an exit. One exit before mine. (So close to being home!) So everybody involved in the two accidents stood around on a road formation that is apparently called, quite unfortunately, a "gore point." My adrenalin was still pumping, and I still couldn't believe I had caused all this mess. And I was confused by the presence of the previous accident. I started asking the teens, shakily, repeatedly, "What happened? I mean, what's going on?" Somehow, the teens managed to refrain from shaking me by the collar and screaming, "You fucking demolished our car, is what happened!" They were in a bit of shock themselves, and one of them said, "Didn't you see everybody slowing down?!" I apologized. Probably 10 times. Realizing my apologies weren't really doing any good, I stepped away. Doubt they had much they needed to say to me.

But the other guy talked to me, the guy whose car had merely been scuffed. We struck up something of a rapport. Would have been nice to know this guy under different circumstances. He was calm and level-headed... possibly because he hadn't had the wind knocked out of him like the rest of us, so didn't have quite as many hormones racing through his body. He was a big help in talking me down. He reviewed the situation with me: everyone was okay, and insurance exists for just such a situation, so everything was going to be fine.

I had owned that car for five months.

And then we all waited. And waited and waited. The police were still wrapping up their work on the previous accident. I was hoping they'd find a way to pin everything with my accident on that accident. Yes, yes, I acknowledge that the accident was my fault. But -- no bullshit -- if that previous accident hadn't already occurred, I don't believe mine would have happened. And I'm not saying that as someone in the thick of the situation, desperate to avoid responsibility. I still think that now, six months later. But it is what it is. Down here on Earth, the way things work is - the second accident is on me.

So eventually the police started taking the statements of everyone involved in the second accident. Cleanup was underway. But there was still so much waiting. It was just past 2 AM, but felt like hours more. It was cold. And it seemed like there was still a lot of work to do before we'd get to leave. Obviously, all I'd wanted after such a long day, bad at work was to get home. Now I was in an accident, and just waiting, waiting, waiting. I was standing near the tip of the gore point, leaning against a sign -- Exit 9 Crenshaw. There were three police cars parked end-to-end at the tip of the gore point, effectively closing off that exit to traffic. There was also an ambulance and a couple of fire trucks parked along the edge of the freeway, not to mention all of the vehicles that had been involved in the accidents.

That horrible sound again! The screeching. It started ripping through the normal sounds of traffic. And then a smash. Another accident was underway! The police report puts it at 2:07 AM. I couldn't see what was going on, but I knew a police car had been hit. Another smash! The first police car was pushed into the next -- there were officers sitting inside that second car, doing paperwork. Then the next one. All of this heading directly for me, as I stood near the exit sign. I started walking backwards, keeping a firm eye on the incoming disaster. Was it going to make it all the way to the gore point? It was! I turned to run. The police cars were pushed into the exit sign, snapping the wooden four-by-four beam off its cement perch. The sign rolled back over a police car a little bit, but then was flung forward, right toward me. It skipped off the ground and bounced up. It slammed square into the center of my right calf.

I couldn't believe this was happening! No one could. Three distinct, separate accidents, all piling up on top of each other. Was this real? When was I going to wake up from this nightmare?

There was a solid dent in my leg muscle, and it was not filling back out to its normal shape. I couldn't really feel anything, between the second dose of adrenalin and the numbing cold. I stared long and hard to make sure my leg wasn't broken. It wasn't. So I followed the new instructions the officers were yelling out: "All right, we want everybody to walk back. Just... keep going back. Far."

Now they were closing off three lanes of freeway; traffic would be going way too slow for anybody to build up that kind of momentum again.

Someone was missing. The nice guy, from the mildly scuffed car. I started to get worried. Eventually, he walked up the way to join the rest of us. He had been inside his car, and had gotten hit again, when this new accident happened. The police had asked if, since his car was fine, he wouldn't mind moving it up the road and out of the way so that emergency vehicles could use that space. Now his car, which had only had minor damage, had its door completely smashed in. And my car, already a total loss, received twice the damage.

This guy had been in two car accidents less than an hour apart. And he was fine, both times.

More paperwork, more statements, more waiting. More time to analyze just how truly bizarre the whole night had been.

AAA got me home sometime before 4. Then I had to wake up my girlfriend out of a sound sleep and lay all this news on her. Nobody's idea of a good time.

Honestly, even six months later, it still feels terrible thinking about this. Everybody has gotten on with their lives. Insurance compensated people in all the necessary ways.

-- Oh, except for the fact that the guy who caused the third accident was a criminal, driving a stolen car. Needless to say, he was uninsured... which sucks for a lot of reasons, but specifically because he should be helping me pay off my medical bills for the leg injury. Kinda doubt I'll ever see that money. --

But I don't think I'll ever get over the fact that I actually caused this kind of accident. Which is probably a good thing, as it's certainly made me a far more cautious driver. But sometimes I think I'm being too cautious, and that could theoretically be damaging. Hypothetical butterfly effect: me driving too slow causes someone else to become impatient, drive erratically, and cause another accident. But you can't live your life thinking that way. There's just no way to ever predict these things. You just have to be the best driver you can be.

Oh, and also try not to work a stressful job that keeps you at work all hours of the night. Unless you enjoy that sort of thing.

There's a lot more to this story - mostly personal stuff that I don't want to get into. But I feel obligated to mention that things have turned remarkably positive for me since this accident. I guess I'm a silver lining kind of guy. As bad as this may all sound -- and, believe me, I certainly wish it never happened -- it sent my life in a new, better direction. It's still painful for me to talk about this. But everybody was fine, and things have truly improved since then. For so many reasons, I continue to be grateful.


4 comments:

Helby said...

Yeah, that wasn't a fun night, or week for that matter. But like you said, things worked out for you in the end.

Mary Beth said...

The only car accident I've ever been in (knock on wood), I was at fault as well. But I still think I wouldn't have wrecked if the guy in front of me hadn't gone flying off the road, into a ditch and hitting another car. As it was, I was watching all that happen and didn't notice the car stopped to turn right in front of me. Horrible screeching sound followed by a crash. No one was seriously hurt in either crash, but it still shakes you up anyway.

Glad you're OK and that things took an upturn after that!

Mom said...

What an incredible story. I hope it's never repeated for anyone I know and love. I wish I could take it away from you. But I'm a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. We know that it helps you be a more cautious and better driver, it maybe helped you decide to leave that job and there may be many things that we'll never know that happened because of that experience. I'm just so grateful that it wasn't any worse than it was. I love you, honey!

Grant Donovan said...

wow shitty story...but well told. I've been in some crazy accidents myself, but nothing like being trapped @ the "gore point"