I'm used to people assuming that I'm into cars. They think because I'm an aviation geek and from LA, I'm also intrigued by all things automotive. They couldn't be more wrong.
No offense to my friends at CNET Roadshow, but my true feelings have long been ambivalence bordering on dislike. I consider a car as only a way to get somewhere. I don't care what it looks like or how it performs. I'm annoyed by excessively loud engines, and I've never taken any pleasure from the sensation of driving. When I choose a rental, I just take what's available.
My dislike of cars comes from the fact that we let people drive them, people who are distracted by bad days, who are tired or drunk, or who view their cars and their driving as some misguided show of strength. When it's sitting still, a car is fine -- it may even be pretty -- but when it's in motion with a driver at the wheel, I only see it as incredibly dangerous. Or as Ralph Nader titled his pivotal book 56 years ago, unsafe at any speed.
That belief was confirmed last month when my husband and I were in an accident near our home in Oakland, California, that totaled our car. Amazingly, we were able to walk away. So many others aren't so fortunate: Car accidents kill 1.35 million people annually, according to the World Health Organization.
I can't shake the feeling that our lives could have ended in seconds while doing something perfectly ordinary. But a more unexpected realization emerged at the same time: an appreciation for the wonders of car safety technology. When the front half of our car got crunched like an accordion, it kept the passenger cabin and our bodies intact. And those amazing airbags, something I've always taken for granted, did just what they were supposed to do.
Out of nowhere
All I can tell you about the accident is that it happened in an instant. I was driving us to Oakland International Airport for a weekend away when I entered a major intersection on a green light. Suddenly in front of us was the flash of a car running the red light. My husband yelled and that was it.
There was no time to react. The next thing I remember was the force of the impact and the airbags deploying. I can't describe anything else, even what the other car looked like. It really came out of nowhere.
The impact spun us in a 180 in the middle of the intersection. It took me a few seconds to compose myself, but we quickly got out and caught our breath as white smoke billowed from the engine. Police were on the scene quickly, and thanks to witnesses they established the red-light-running driver was racing.
The police helped us get our belongings out of the car, and the fire department arrived minutes later to mop up the debris and the oil spilling down the street. Just 30 minutes after a tow truck hauled our demolished 2018 Toyota Prius away, we were back home in a daze (we still took our trip, but on a later flight).
Amazement … and anger
Doctor visits that day confirmed our immediate injuries were limited to sore chests from hitting the airbags, and one banged-up shin. I'm grateful we survived and relieved no one else was in the car with us. If we had hit head-on or been T-boned, it could have been so much worse. But we were fortunate that the circumstances were just enough for that little Prius -- a car that's often an object of ridicule -- to protect us. I'll never forget that.
Nor will I forget visiting the car at the tow yard four days later on a gray, blustery day to get some things we had left inside and take a closer look at the damage. The tow yard was strewn with cars in far worse shape than ours -- passenger cabins that had been squashed like a ball of foil and rear ends that had been knocked clean off. It all left a sick feeling in my stomach.
That gut punch turned to wonder when I got to our car and saw the deflated airbags. They weren't just in the steering wheel and passenger console, they also hung like curtains along both sides. There even was one below the wheel to protect my knees. I was too much in shock immediately after the crash to notice them all, but that day at the yard I felt the sagging nylon fabric and stared at it in amazement. I'm indebted to the people who designed and perfected this technology, to the 1991 federal legislation that mandated airbags in cars and light trucks, and the automakers for putting them in more places in the car that I never knew (even if they resisted being forced to do so). I know airbags have caused injuries, they don't always work and they're unsafe for children, but they save up to 2,800 lives a year. And they likely saved ours.
I'm angry, too. Angry at people stunt driving or drag racing on the freeway, seemingly forgetting that the Fast and Furious franchise has already been cast. At the burnouts and sideshows that endanger the public, jam our streets and pollute them with the fumes and smoke of burning rubber. At the person who felt the need to show off that day by racing through busy city streets at 10 a.m. on a Thursday without any regard for the human lives they almost stole. Whatever inner need pushes people to do something so heartless, selfish and stupid is something I'll never understand.
Weeks later, I can still hear the sound of the impact, and I suppose I will for a long time. Our chests still ache, and our sides, where the seat belts wrapped around to the buckle, ache from time to time. And I'm avoiding that intersection until further notice. Honestly, though, the biggest pain has been getting the tow yard to release the car, waiting hours to get required paperwork from the Oakland city bureaucracy and accepting that in a hit-and-run, there's no one my insurance company can hold responsible. Hello, higher rates.
Our next job is to shop for a new car, all in the middle of a chip shortage (no negotiating, I imagine). But it's a process I'll take some interest in, especially as we put more focus on buying something with a high safety rating. I may even enjoy the test drive. But don't assume I've completely changed my mind about cars. I'm still not into them, but now I appreciate them more than ever.