(This is part 8 of a multi-part series. If you wish to start at the beginning, click here)
Dad, having sworn off underpowered sedans so he could haul his boat, found his way into a 1987 Cherokee. He picked right: the newly added 4.0L helped make the (XJ) Cherokee the legend it remains today. Hitting the gas pedal in his brought a revelation that the same vehicle with 2 different engines…is not the same vehicle at all (Rule #4), like comparing 4-banger mustangs to 5-ohs. A few years later as a teenager, I was moving his car from a back alley. The wheels were turned, and I forgot which Jeep I was in. I nearly accelerated into a wall before I realized my torque and turn mistake.
Shortly after turning 15, it was time to make a date with the licensing office. Taking the written test at 14 had yielded the paper Learner’s Permit. Leveling up to a Restricted License (which at the time allowed solo driving to work and school) required the driving test portion. Like most teens, I sweated this one out, mainly preoccupied about the infamous request to, “Ok, now parallel park right over in that 3-inch space. And by the way Anderson, I love my coffee.” As it turned out, the test wasn’t much of a challenge at all: the proct-offic-er just had me get out in traffic and make some turns. I was extra conservative in all facets: modest speed, early signaling, checking both mirrors and over the shoulder. All went well until it was time to turn off into a feeder lane that returned to the parking lot of the license station. I slowed to a modest 15mph and a car behind me decided to zip around my puttering and cut us off into the parking lot. The fat female uniformed “officer” in the passenger seat flashed an indignant face at the cutter, saying, “I should go ticket that person…But I guess I won’t.” Yeah right, I mentally rolled my eyes, like you’ve collared any real criminals in the past ten years.
Pleased with my newly minted license, I pressed Dad for the keys to the Cherokee that weekend to go celebrate. Ready to show off (if somewhat illegally) that I could hit the roads of freedom. He consented and I had a five-point plan: 1) pick up my HS buddy, 2) buzz by the house of the girl I had started dating, 3) roll in like Hannibal to the teenage sanctuary known as Oak Park Mall, 4) take my bud home, and 5) finally return to the home base. Keys felt good weighted in my hand. Drove across the city, got the friend, and then went to the girlfriend’s house. She had a sweet red ’87 turbo Lebaron convertible (soundtrack: Midnight Oil – Dreamworld) and I was anxious to show her how this former-bicycle-jockey would soon be picking her up for dates. Her reception was uncharacteristically icy (I would come to find the next week she had just started dating someone else: sooo, I guess we’re finished here). We didn’t stay long. Off to Oak Park Mall (~25 minutes away). I cranked the best hair band rock 1989 radio had to offer and we looked forward to the great destination. Avoided the freeway and took 103rd St west. Coming up to my right turn on Quivira, the tunes are lively, the anticipation of seeing girls with poofy bangs is palpable, and the destination lies less than a mile away.
First up to the right turn lane, I stopped at the red light (blue arrow/white CRV in Google Maps photo). Laughing about something with my friend, I pulled to a stop, and went immediately into the right turn….without looking to the left. I gave the driver of the approaching northbound Camry virtually no opportunity to react. He smashed into the front driver’s fender of the Cherokee at about 40mph. My shocked mind and body felt the impact and quickly struggled to make sense of what had just happened. Plastic signals and headlamps shattered and rained in the air like a Fourth of July fountain. In just a few seconds, it had registered: Accident.
I had caused it by pulling out on a red light into oncoming traffic. The stricken Camry had bailed to the left lane but was still moving forward, as was I. I managed to gesture to the other driver a turn off at the next side street.
My heart was pounding and my head was swimming. I’m sure I was hyperventilating. Thankfully, no one injured. Pulled over, got out, and damage surveyed. Not good. The Cherokee’s left front fender was annihilated and the Camry had sizeable similar front end damage. Nobody was buffing these out. I think I gave the first of about a hundred apologies. The Indian man driving the Camry didn’t say much except, “New car…”
Knocked on a house door where the police were called, followed by a call to Dad to confess what just happened. I hope I parentally remember how calm he was on the phone, making sure no one was hurt. He asked, “Where are you at? I’m on my way.” Police arrived
and the enormity of what I’d done was sinking in: Driving illegally (not work or school on a restricted license), responsible for the accident (failure to yield on a red light right turn), and had just wrecked two cars—Dad’s (his only) and a stranger’s. Ever have a day when the world as you knew it comes crashing down? Suddenly carefree wasn’t so “free” when the full bill dropped…and I couldn’t afford to pay it. All the things I had carelessly tossed to the wind (legal driving, welfare of others, dad’s car) now dropped on my head with their full weight.
I couldn’t help it: tears started to fall. My friend just looked at me disgusted for blubbering. He had another friend who lived a few blocks away and made an excuse to take off on foot to catch a ride home. Dad arrived before the police finished up. I was served a couple of citations, insurance was exchanged, and both cars were still drivable (after peeling back the Jeep’s front fender off the tire). There was nothing to do at that point but go home. Except, Dad had come out solo in my stepmother’s manual Saab and told me I had to drive the Cherokee home. I started shaking my head, No! No! I’m never going to drive again! My overconfidence had been vaporized in a span of seconds; hero to less than zero. With fatherly patience, he said, yes, I did need to drive home. In retrospect, getting back in the saddle might’ve been the greatest thing I needed at that moment. I followed him home, feeling like a retreating army. We pulled in the driveway, and I went in the house sensing the eyes of the rest of the awaiting stepfamily crawling over me. Isolated to my room, wishing the end of the world would hasten to distract from my shame.
We all experience major, altering events in our lives, and though obviously I survived, at fifteen I couldn’t imagine that the sun was ever going to rise again after that day. Teenagers are known to be histrionic, but it was the single worst mistake I’d made to date.
The aftermath was: Dad had to drive his wrecked car to work (I felt horribly self-conscious knowing my mistake was going to be replayed for colleagues’ curious inquiries with the mangled car on full display). Few weeks later, a mandatory court appearance due to the moving violations—another new and intimidating experience. Dad prepped me on how to comport myself in a courtroom and went with me the day of, for which I was hugely thankful. The judge handed down a decently big fine and a Saturday date in traffic school. My insurance rate launched like a Saturn rocket, but life eventually got back to normal and I continued to drive intermittently, albeit with a costly degree in checking for cross traffic, obeying red lights, and respecting restricted driving rules.
Ultimately, I was just a rookie teen driver who hadn’t learned enough about situational awareness and paying attention to be safe on the road. A cautionary tale to be passed on to my own children.
in one of my other lives, I prepped a lecture on ‘making mistakes’ for professionals and pre-professional students. The story of this accident kept creeping in as I did my research, and I reached some understandings I wish I’d known so many decades ago, sitting alone in my room that evening.
It’s easier to dissect the causes of the accident now: distractions (found in research to be the root cause of 78% of all motor vehicle accidents), multi-tasking, inexperience, limited peripheral vision perception, overconfidence as a beginner, putting my own desires before others, to name a few. Pointing those out wouldn’t have soothed much, but there was a second, follow-up lecture that dealt with how to respond to mistakes, and that I needed to hear then (and now):
And surely for me, there is more Life in Cars to be lived.
Coming soon, Part 9.
Soundtrack: Soul II Soul, Keep on Moving