I was involved in a two-car crash two summers ago. While taking a left turn at the crest of a blind hill on a country road, our Jeep was T-boned by an oncoming sedan and landed in a ditch.
The car was totalled: launched 10 metres, chassis smashed beneath the passenger door, four tires scalped to rims. I can still smell burning engine oil. I can still see, through a haze of airbag talc, my friend Niko unconscious in the passenger seat, Alex awake and cursing in the back.
I was the driver. I couldn't comprehend what had happened. Later, I would ask myself why it had happened.
We had planned a weekend at Niko's cottage by the Skootamatta River near Tweed, Ont. We brought beer and a fishing rod and food. A gentlemen's retreat. But en route we missed our first major turnoff, and spent our morning comfortably lost on country roads.
We had one last turn to make before our arrival. It snuck up on us and we missed it. We turned around, went back and tried to turn left instead of right.
When the emergency crew arrived, an OPP officer took my statement while I watched as Niko was lifted onto a stretcher, babbling and barely conscious.
"I have to ask," the officer said, "because you're out of sorts, and I just keep getting these wafts, have you been drinking?"
I hadn't. A case of beer had exploded behind my seat. I showed the officer my beer-soaked back and the broken bottles. He questioned my sobriety again, then walked me to the point of impact.
He handed me a ticket. Turn not in safety, it read. Judging by my skid marks, he concluded that my turn had been taken early, the sure cause of the accident. A turn, he said, I wouldn't have taken "back in downtown Toronto."
I took the ticket and said thanks. I was bemused, but my thoughts were simple, immediate: Get Niko to hospital. Hope he gets better. All this is my fault.
I thought I'd killed him. A yellow slip of paper didn't compute.
I called my father to tell him I'd just buried his car. That I needed my mother and him to meet me at the hospital.
I crossed paths with the other driver there - his fiancée was being checked for whiplash. Doctors probed Niko's brain for damage. We sat together commiserating.
Niko was discharged that evening with a concussion. The other driver's fiancée was okay. We were all okay.
My parents and I visited the wreck that night. My mother and I emptied all belongings from the car, diligently ignoring the harsh reality before us.
Dad busied his mind with details of the crash, finding it curious that our car had been pushed such a distance, that the Jeep's strong steel chassis had been bent by a sedan. I had been issued a ticket, the other driver had not. Viewed pragmatically, this equation seemed off.
We returned to investigate the scene of the accident the next morning. Tire marks still bruised the road. A gash in the asphalt, where the sedan dug under the car, stared me down. I wanted to throw up. These harsh marks seemed like tidy bits of chaos that I just couldn't handle. The impact was apparent, even without mangled cars on the scene. We measured nearly 30 metres of skid marks from the sedan. I called in to contest my offence.
My dad and I spent many nights dragging through evidence. We spoke with forensic scientists specializing in crash reconstruction. We noted figures on deceleration rates; the drag coefficient of a paved country road on a sunny summer's day; brake reaction time; velocity and skid velocity; and the transfer of energy from one moving object to another. We plugged these details into an equation lifted from a legal journal and found that the sedan may have been speeding.
For the first time since the accident I felt a sense of conviction. Logic clarified a chaotic car crash. I was no longer the sole misfit, the one who almost killed everybody. Traffic court would be my vindicator.
Before my trial, the Crown suggested I plead guilty. I pointed to my binder of evidence with a bit of cheek, declined the guilty plea and mentioned that I had a few questions for the officer.
"But," my dad said, "we want to mention how understanding and polite the officer was after the accident." We thought of ourselves as lawyers.
The officer appeared in court. We waited, but the other driver didn't show.
"Your Worship," said the Crown. "Since the other driver is not here, and I have no other witnesses, I cannot proceed with this case."
Charges withdrawn. Gavel.
My dad and I left the courthouse that day like rock stars on bail. Still, I didn't feel I'd won the case. I hadn't presented my forensic analysis, though I'd spent so much energy trying to insert logic into a moment of chaos. Where and when did the butterfly flap its wings that day to set this crash in motion?
The way I see it, the trial was as confusing as the collision itself. Sometimes you just can't place order in disorder. Hard data may quantify the chances of an accident occurring, but I'm now sure that I was either going to crash my car that day, or be fishing off the dock with a beer at my feet and my friends by my side.
Both drivers were in the wrong that day: I may have taken a suspect turn, the other car may have been speeding. Bad things happen. Why, I still can't quantify.
Eli Yarhi lives in Toronto.
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