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One summer night a few weeks ago, I was preparing for a dinner party. Hmm. What frock to wear? There came a knock on my door. I nearly didn’t answer, suspecting evangelists or a student collecting to save polar bears – but I did. I was met by a distraught woman and her cousin, a neighbour. The woman explained that while attempting to parallel park her Jeep 4X4, she’d accidentally slammed the gas instead of the brake and crashed into my car, which was parked on the street, from behind.

OMG.

“There is some damage,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”

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Pictures of my wounded RAV after it was backed into Insurance story.

Anne Bayin/The Globe and Mail

My Toyota RAV4’s hood was twisted like a fortune cookie. The bumper was askew, the headlights broken. The woman was remorseful. Kudos she’d even come to my door. We took pictures on our iPhones and exchanged insurance information. I was new to this. Should I even inform police in case the damage was expensive? I didn’t want to bother them. Did this count as an emergency?

“Lucky you weren’t in it,” the cousin said. The line, intended to comfort, oddly didn’t. I consider myself a peacemaker, but those words – and I would hear them often in coming days – kind of rankled.

Lucky. Yes, well, okay. The front end of my vehicle was destroyed. My car was not driveable and I was inconsolable. How lucky can I get?

What follows is a novice’s journey into the underworld of collision and insurance; the helplessness felt as I attempted to sort the players from the program while trying to figure out who, if anyone, had the best interests of my RAV4 at heart.

I know the woman who hit me was not evil. Accidents can happen to anyone. She did not set out to wreck my car. On the contrary, she seemed pleasant and teary-eyed. She immediately pulled out her phone to contact her husband for solace and guidance. I point this out only because I didn’t have the equivalent marital soother in place, so the balance of power was already not tipping in my favour.

Where I live, Ontario – a province of “no-fault” insurance – it is the victim, not the perpetrator, who is forced to put her life on hold and suffer not only the impact, but the consequences.

It is the victim who will spend frustrating hours at the reporting station, hitching rides in tow trucks, pleading, misguidedly, with powers-that-be in auto body shops, waiting on hold to speak with insurance agents (“Due to higher volume of calls and longer wait times than usual, etc.”) bargaining with used-car salespeople, arranging for safety checks and coping with first-world stress.

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The hitter says sorry and drives away with a tiny dent to the fender; the hittee descends into a bureaucratic hell without wheels.

No single point-person will be assigned to guide her through the steps and minutiae to follow. No matter she has never had a prior accident. No matter she has been a loyal customer for decades. Agents are friendly but programmed to dispense with the problem as quickly and cheaply as possible.

My car, a coddled 1997 RAV4, with a mere 120,000 kilometres on it, had dignity and character. When purchased, lightly used in 2002, it was love at first sight. It soldiered through blizzards, delivered art works to galleries, picked up friends from cancer treatments, transported others to parties. It was the Betty White of SUVs, aging brilliantly. It had brand-new tires and CV shafts and had passed the emissions test. But, by the book, it was old. Age was against it.

When the Total Loss specialist named it a “writeoff,” I was stunned. What? You’re refusing a hood replacement? My imagination leapt to the bigger picture, to my own age (the equivalent in RAV4 years) to my hip or perhaps my cracked skull and the surgeon regretfully pronouncing, “Sorry, too old.”

The morning after the accident, two tow truck drivers, assigned from a body shop contacted by the insurance agent, wrangled my car onto a lift. They graciously allowed me to ride along to Collision Reporting Station Hellandgone, saving me $70 in cab fare. They waited while I took a number, sat in a row of plastic chairs and attempted to fill out undecipherable forms. There was no category describing my type of accident. I found whiplash and death and all kinds of crash variations, but no place for “innocently parked car bashed in by stranger.”

I had whiplash all right. Inside. When my number was called, I spoke with a sequence of officials, received multiple photocopied forms and stamps were applied.

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A uniformed police officer took the papers away. The one I spoke with was empathetic, considering how distracted we were by the woman reporting beside me. She had placed bunnies named Mork and Mindy in separate kitty carriers on the counter. Who wouldn’t be distracted?

They conjured in me images of the killer rabbit in Monty Python and The Holy Grail – you know, the one that flies wildly and bites heads off its enemies? I was now that person.

Reporting dispensed with, my car (and, by extended courtesy, me) were towed to an auto body shop, where I pleaded my case to the owner, convinced he controlled the fate of my car. Alas. He only estimated damage. It wasn’t his call whether to fix or write off a vehicle.

“Only 120,000 kilometres! “ I said, pitifully, before Ubering home.

If it was insurance’s call, who, exactly, at insurance? Give me a name, please. Because it’s called no fault, my company would be footing the bill.

I waited.

Over the next 10 days, I slept badly. I was depressed. You need focus and optimism to work as a freelancer and I had neither. My new full-time unpaid job was navigating the system.

My broker was on vacation. My assigned adjuster worked in phone queue rotation, rarely available to pick up directly. My Total Loss adjuster made a low-ball offer and fell silent for days.

I’m not sure when it dawned on me that the insurance company was not going to replace my car. Perhaps, when it asked that I remove plates and personal belongings. (I learned, too late, there is a provision that allows you to buy back your car, but the cash offer is lower so will likely not equal damages. My mechanic called it “too risky.”) Bottom line: A comparable vehicle would cost an additional several thousand dollars and the difference was coming from my pocket.

Am I alone in thinking there is something morally and ethically wrong with this picture? I was the victim remember.

Here are the numbers.

  • 51: the number of years I had driven accident-free.
  • 34: the number of years with the same insurance company.
  • 0: the number of phone calls returned from the manager of my insurance company.
  • 10: the number of days spent searching on Kijiji, Auto Trader, and Car Guru looking for equivalent RAV4s (the closest was in Surrey, B.C.).
  • 15: the number of days before my claim was settled.
  • 0: the number of floral bouquets I received from the woman who damaged my car.
  • $3,700: the out-of-pocket cost to me in expenses and for replacing my vehicle.
  • $381: the increase in my premium for the newer model car
  • $130: the fee for 50 minutes of counselling.

On Day 12, I found a car that spoke to me. It was pretty (jellybean green) and had a spirit name (Soul). It wasn’t the RAV4 I was still grieving, but it had attitude. It also had a high kilometre count (190,000) and had been in a fender-bender, which would freak my brother out, but I decided it was the car for me. We’re all of us flawed, right?

I took it for a test drive. I liked the ride. The dealership drove it to my mechanic for a safety check. It agreed to fix a dent, detail the car and replace the shocks. I closed the deal with a personal (not certified) cheque, auspiciously dated Friday the 13th.

The one shock no one could fix was losing my car in the first place.

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