On a back country two-lane highway in rural western Tennessee, it is a wet evening under low November clouds, just past civil twilight.  A heavily loaded 18-wheel tractor-trailer is laboring northwest over gentle hills, its speed dropping to 40 miles per hour uphill, and rising to 55 downhill. Following closely behind that truck is a small Toyota Corolla with a 22-year old driver who awaits a chance to pass. The Toyota’s windshield wipers flick away the spray kicked up by the truck at the end of a day that has dropped over an inch of rain. His 21-year old companion has drifted off to sleep beside him, her seatbelt unlatched. Finally, after what seems like hours, but is only several minutes, a straight flat section of highway opens up – a section fairly well-known to the driver. He pulls out to pass, checking for the headlights of possible oncoming traffic, and makes his move to pass.
Moments before, an Oldsmobile Delta 88 leaves home in a small rural community in western Tennessee. The big 2-ton 88 enters the highway, heading southeast. In a few moments its 450 cubic inch 8-cylinder engine has accelerated it to nearly 60 miles per hour, its driver not yet aware that only her parking lights are on — but not her headlights — as twilight continues to fade and three small children clamber about the car’s spacious interior.
The Toyota’s little 1.6L aluminum 4-cylinder engine, reacting to the driver pushing hard on the accelerator and down-shifting to passing gear, pushes the little 1,500 pound tin can to nearly even with the truck’s cab, which is itself still accelerating on the flat to nearly 55mph. Anxiously, the Toyota’s driver pushes the tiny engine — which has just been refreshed with new plugs, points, condenser and a very clean carburetor — with more intensity.
Suddenly, and to his dismay, two tiny lights appear directly in front; not headlights (!), but the dim parking lights of a much larger car. There is not enough time to complete the pass; indeed, there may not be enough time to safely drop back and slip behind the truck on such a rain-slick road. The cars are approaching each other at well over 100 miles per hour.
The following events happen in a mere moment or two.
Backing off the gas, the Corolla’s driver maneuvers the car onto the highway’s left shoulder. There, the soft and wet shoulder grab the car’s left wheels and tug it – tug it toward a water-filled ditch that now appears in the headlights and parallels the road. Until now there was little time to waste; there is less time now, and zero margin for error. The driver tries to gently navigate a path to split the difference between the ditch and the on-coming Olds … too much! The tiny Corolla spins out of control and careens back into the oncoming lane – directly in front of the much more massive Oldsmobile. The last thing the Corolla’s driver sees is the front grill of the Oldsmobile plowing directly into the driver-side door.
Such a meaningless waste of lives.
Traffic fatality rates in the United States have fallen dramatically, although not steady, in the last four decades. In the early ‘70s, we lost consistently well over 50,000 lives annually to traffic accidents … as much as the entire death toll for our long involvement in Viet Nam – I recall being reminded (which lasted from 1950 – really! – until 1975, although we ceased fighting in 1973). By 2009 our auto-related death toll had fallen to just over 30,000 lives . This great drop in death despite a population growth from just under 200 million to well over 300 million in that period. Or, if you prefer, a per capita drop in traffic fatalities of over 50%. This, despite unquestionably more crowded roads and highways. And less sane drivers.
There are many reasons for this. The leader is probably safer cars and driver practices in general – cars with 4, 6 and even 8 air bags, energy absorbing frames, engine mounts that drop, seat belts and shoulder harnesses. Add to that better road and highway design and signage, driver training, alcohol awareness and we have a safer America.
There are other factors for sure, including better driver education training for young drivers, as well as some wonderful programs targeted toward our younger drivers and citizens, such as Alive at 25 and Every 15 Minutes. Insurance companies are placing more emphasis on well-trained, well-behaved and more responsible young drivers, especially those under 21, our most endangered segment of the driving population.
All of this notwithstanding, there is some disturbing evidence that traffic death rates have leveled off and may soon be increasing. Growing road crowding and evidence of increased road rage are combined with more occurrence of pervasive distracted driver. Perhaps none should be more alarmed at distracted driving than pedestrians, cyclists and even motorcyclists – who seem more affected than others when drivers make small mistakes with significant consequences.
But sometimes it is nothing more than dumb luck that turns a possibly fatal traffic accident from its worst-possible-outcome to one much, much better. Providence – God? – may deem that it is not the time. I am not quite so comfortable with that, because – sometimes – the end results are so much worse than they could have been. Does God have a hand in that as well?
All life has potential, and as such I believe that there is a plan for each of us. But I cannot presume to know what it is. It is simply there.
Life is a sequence of unexplainable miracles. A short list includes the meeting of our parents – and grandparents, ad infinitum – as well as the miracle of mitochondrial splitting of cells and formation of organs. When miracles lead to a life full of potential – when miracles lead to a life with a great role – then we think that it was meant to be. Even ordained. When the miracles stop, and lives and their potential cease along with the cessation of miracles, we wonder what the Almighty was thinking.
That is where I have spent a good deal of time over the past several decades.
And what of car accidents? And miracles? At about 5:30PM on November 17th, 1978 just outside Bells, Tennessee on a dim, rain-slickened State Highway 20, I was the driver of a 1974 Toyota Corolla. My life did not “flash before my eyes” as I watched the Olds 88 smash into the driver’s side of my tiny car. I do recall thinking “so this is it?” and seeing a flash of light and then … nothing. The Corolla did a full gainer and a few twists before landing wheels down in a field on the side of the highway.
Somehow the Olds managed to direct most of its energy into the Toyota’s frame forward of the cabin where the driver and passenger were sitting … virtually shearing the Corolla off where the dashboard connects to the frame. Still the driver’s side was almost completely caved in … yet … miraculously, no deaths.
And I don’t use the word miraculously lightly. Lots of other factors have led to decreased traffic fatalities: better tires, reflective highway paint, anti-lock breaks, Jersey barriers, daytime running lights, those little ridges on the sides of roads. In 1978 my personal little Olds-Toyota collision incident had the benefit of not a single one of those factors. Considering the events: There is no good reason for me or my passenger to be alive. She suffered a bang on the head and a twisted knee. The kids in the Olds bounced around, but their (uninsured) mother refused treatment for herself and them at the scene; to be seen only once again. She appeared a month later in traffic court and testified that she never hit the brakes because she thought I was safely off the road. My left wrist, hand, knee, ankle and calf were shredded … yet survived with quite a few stitches. All are now cursed with arthritis, and I have a single bad disk (C6/C7), but yea verily, no complaints. I also suffered the first of my concussions.
Maybe there are good reasons for me to be alive. My wife of almost 27 years (edited: now 34 years). Three grown children; two daughters-in-law. Countless lives and friends and experiences. Many questions will remain unanswered for me until I finally do meet my end. Questions. Did someone, something, somehow nudge the Olds over? What is it I am supposed to do with my life that justified my survival? Have I done it already? Am I on borrowed time?
Hardly a day goes by, my friends, when I don’t recall that night. [Edited: and also the evening of my violent May 1, 2014 car crash]. And I am left with only this: Life is an unbelievable series of wonderful and unexplainable mysteries and miracles. And not just from the moment of conception and through literally trillions of mitochondrial reproductions; the miracles that make up our lives and make our lives possible go back through the chance and circumstances of our parents’ lives to the dawn of time. Yes, each life is an accumulation of incredible numbers of miracles. Use it wisely.
If you believe that there is a future day of reckoning — a day of judgment — with your Maker — you just might be a better person today (allowing of course for human weakness) … thus granting justification to all the infinite little miracles of the past that made it possible for you to be you.
Other Notes: Highway 20 at this location is now a four lane highway … much easier to pass.
My Corolla was yellow. Not orange as the image shows. I don’t know the color of the Delta 88, but it was large. My car was totaled. As I was grad student with little money, I had no collision insurance. So it was a total loss.