Man’s relationship with his methods of transportation has always been a complicated one.
In earliest times, we rolled head over heels down a hill to get where we were going, until the rise of terraced agriculture made such tumbling impossible. In the Middle Ages, it was the catapult that sent us flying over great expanses; it took centuries to realize the trade-off of speed and distance against the violent landings wasn’t good. Next it was animals like camels and horses and oxen that moved us about, a very efficient option until we realized how good they tasted.
Mmm — camels.
A little over a hundred years ago, we began our love affair with the automobile. Encased in steel, we lost a vital connection to the natural world but gained a cultural icon, a system of interstate highways, and more cupholders than we had hands. Those of us inside the modern motor vehicle traveled the world in comfort while those on the outside scrambled to get out of the way.
I’ve been fortunate in my nearly 40 years of driving never to have killed anyone with my automobile. I’ve had a few car-on-car mishaps, though these were almost all minor fender benders in the eyes of everyone except my insurance company. I did strike a mystery animal that had wandered out onto the interstate early one morning on the way to work (at least I was headed to work; I don’t know what he was doing out at that hour). I only caught enough of a glimpse to recognize it wasn’t a human or a yeti or a chupacabra, and that’s about all that concerned me at 2 a.m.
Aside from assorted small groundlings, the only other creature I’ve hit is the neighborhood dog known locally as “Ironside.” He’s a golden retriever mix that lives near the main access to our subdivision, and he loves to bob in and out of the shrubbery that separates the two entrance lanes. You can’t go fast enough in this spot to gain any real momentum, so though he’s struck constantly by all the neighbors he always gets up and trots away.
We do have a lot of pedestrians in our neighborhood so I try to be extra careful in the area. In general, I’d characterize my driving style as “efficient” (other might use the word “crazy”), which is to say I want to be in the car only as long as it takes to get from point A to point B. I don’t drive for fun or to listen to music or to “make the scene” in my sweet Civic ride. But I’m learning to be extra cautious near home, primarily because I know these people and colliding with them would be extremely embarrassing.
There’s a lot of trauma that comes with an automobile accident, however we’ve given very little consideration to the personal interaction that follows a near-miss. I once pulled up to a nearby intersection just as a jogger was stepping off the sidewalk and into the roadway. As a runner myself, I know how thoughtless motorists can be, honking when you get in their way, occasionally turning left, asking directions, or yelling critiques of your shorts. But when I’m the driver, it’s they who are the reckless jerks.
I stopped short just in front of this hapless fellow, and our eyes met across the hood of my car. He rightfully glared at me, and I had only seconds to come up with an appropriate response. I shrugged my shoulders and offered a weak smile, then held out my hand as if to say “after you.” I thought that was pretty gracious, though apparently not enough to avoid a mouthed epithet that would make a lip-reader blush.
Fortunately, he wasn’t from the neighborhood so I didn’t have to deal with any subsequent consequences that might’ve included having my mailbox bashed in with a baseball bat. Such was not the case a few months later at the end of my driveway.
We have a bushy magnolia tree on the edge of our property, and it effectively blocks the view on that side of the drive. There are only a few houses down that way before you come to the cul-du-sac, so the usual traffic from that direction is virtually non-existent. On this occasion, however, coming up just behind the tree as I was ready to exit into the road was a family of four out for their evening stroll. The mom was ugly and the dad was wearing an unflattering golf shirt, so there would’ve been no loss there, but the two young children were very cute and deserving of surviving into adulthood.
It didn’t really even qualify as a close call, as we all saw one other in plenty of time to avoid near-collision. Still, there was that awkward moment where we all looked at each other wondering what to say or do next. Since I was backing out, it was easy enough for me to turn away in an implicit offer to let them proceed first, and I assume they did eventually. I’d like to have said something to soothe any hurt feelings there might’ve been, but “sorry I almost killed you” seemed so inadequate.
Later, I remembered the events surrounding a parking lot accident I’d had a few years earlier. It was a terrible January Sunday, very foggy with a forecast of freezing rain. As I backed out of my parking place, a young Japanese man was also backing up and our rear-ends met in a crash. Nobody was hurt, and we briefly examined the two minor dents before hustling into the mall to call our insurance carriers. I tried to make non-incriminating small talk as we hurried along, only to discover he didn’t speak English. There was literally nothing I could say due to the language barrier. No excuses were necessary because no excuses were possible.
I guess that’s why I’m so comfortable hitting the retriever.