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Make no mistake about it, drivers are responsible for their actions. (John C. Panella Jr./John C. Panella Jr.)
Make no mistake about it, drivers are responsible for their actions. (John C. Panella Jr./John C. Panella Jr.)

Drive, She Said

A crash course on 'accidents' Add to ...

The freak storm splattering wet snow against my windshield shouldn't have been a surprise in Canada, but watching some drivers, I could tell that it was. It wasn't forecast to last long, and some extra caution while it did was really all that was required.

I watched a minivan merge on to the highway at about 40 km/h, the driver's caution becoming deadly. A transport truck lunged for the next lane to avoid bashing her to bits; we'd apparently both assumed she was going to shyly enter the highway in the large gap behind him. There wasn't much traffic, and she had a lot of far safer places to perform her dangerous manoeuvre.

As she merrily putted along, oblivious to the close call she'd just been saved from, I heard the words in my head that so many drivers offer up as proof of their excellence: “I've never had an accident.”

Yeah, but how many have you caused?

I just used the word accident, but it was in quotes. I don't believe we should call 99 per cent of the mayhem that takes place on our roads “accidents.” That implies there was no fault, and there was no way to avoid it. This lets poor or inattentive drivers off the hook for the death and destruction they cause with their actions and errors.

Setting aside the 1 per cent (my number; feel free to argue), all the collisions you see are certainly somebody's fault, and our use of the word accident clears the way for people to abdicate responsibility. It doesn't form intent; it doesn't make you evil; I don't believe anyone wants to cause crashes. But the fact remains that if you make errors and cause a collision, it is not an accident. It could have been prevented.

Not two minutes after I'd left the minivan behind me, I saw a white sedan on the other side of the road splayed across an entrance ramp, maybe 20 metres from the bottom. It hadn't totally stopped spinning yet, but the placement indicated the car had completed most of 180 degrees. I flinched as I saw a long string of cars led by a pickup truck coming down the ramp, knowing the curve of the ramp was hiding the situation unfolding ahead of them.

The car was still slowly turning when the right front fenders of the two vehicles met. I'm sure the car's driver was terrified; I'm sure the pickup truck's driver was a little stunned as well, but his evasive pull to the left prevented something far worse from happening.

But let's listen to the conversations in those two households that night. I am only guessing.

White Sedan: “I had an accident today on the Red Hill Expressway. All I was doing was heading down the ramp and, all of a sudden, the car just spun. The truck that hit me couldn't stop in time.”

Pickup Truck: “Some idiot going too fast on the on-ramp spun out and nearly killed a bunch of us. He's lucky I wasn't going any faster or I'd have centre-punched his car.”

No way was that an accident, yet now at least two cars will need repairing (I don't know if any others piled into the mess), two insurance companies will be involved, at least two people will have work and transportation plans derailed and both are now the proud owners of vehicles that have been “involved in an accident.” If you've ever bought or sold a used car, or turned in a leased one, you know how much that phrase means.

The minivan woman had negotiated the turn of her entrance ramp cautiously, but failed to merge at a safe speed. That transport truck saved her life. The white sedan could have used a serving of that caution, and instead put a lot of people in danger on a stretch of pavement that hundreds navigated safely, I'm assuming, both before and after him. That pickup truck saved his life.

It's always a good thing when drivers have the presence of mind to be looking ahead, to be picking up all that is going on around them, to drive to conditions. It's good when their evasive capabilities prevent serious injury.

But why do people who don't do any of that – and cause collisions – get to call it an accident? Acknowledging error is the only way to learn from it, and hopefully not repeat it. Dismissing that error as an accident may make some feel better, but it does a large disservice to the gravity of drivers who are distracted, or just lousy.

When it comes to our roads, an accident is something that can't be prevented. If a meteor lands on your windshield and you crash, I'd call that an accident. If a sudden catastrophic health issue occurs to a driver and they crash, I'd call that an accident. Leaping deer can be deadly, though most rural folk will just tell you to slow the hell down. We'll call that a toss-up. But driving over your head, making blind left turns, failing to see a stop sign, making unsafe lane changes – those are no accidents. Not by a long shot.

The white sedan is no doubt still blaming the weather, and others are no doubt sympathizing. I'm not. It's your job as a driver to calculate thousands of pieces of information every second and make the right choice. You might not always make the right decision, but that's no accident.


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