Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Woman Who Bumped Her Head

So I was driving down the road the other day, and the sun is shining, and I’m thinking about lunch, and… 

Suddenly the car is moving sideways. I grip hard on the wheel as I hear the crunch of metal and I’m drifting up against the guardrail to a stop. This happens in a fraction of a second. The green smoke coming out of the dashboard and the airbags in the windshield make it hard to see. Whatever it was, I never saw it coming.

Luckily, I just scratched my leg. I've had worse cuts in the last year playing basketball. The other driver? She’s fine too. She bumped her head on the steering wheel, even though her car looked like it hit an oak tree. 

My car? The last time I saw it, the biggest forklift I've ever seen was carrying it away into a sea of broken vehicles. Two wrecks caused a scratch and a bump. That’s it. Surprisingly, at no point after my car was destroyed with me in it have I been angry. 

After being hit, my first thoughts had more to do with fear: “Did I just run a red light? Did I just kill somebody?” I think it was the sanest reaction I could have had, given I was totally clueless to what had just happened. 

But after kicking open my car door, and talking to two witnesses, turns out that I had just been driving down the road, legally, thinking about lunch. The woman in the other car ran a red light and t-boned me without so much as a tap of the brakes. I didn't know this when I was at her window seconds after the accident, asking if she was OK. 

After finding out what happened, you would think I could muster some anger toward her, but I can’t. None of it made me mad, even though she was driving illegally, with only a learner’s permit and no one else in the car. The single most important thing about her is that she isn't at the morgue, and that no one else is at the morgue because of me. I will remember her only as The Woman Who Bumped Her Head. 

For the few hours after the accident, I was at home, with lots of hugging and kissing, and thanking of God I wasn't hurt, and counting of blessings that it wasn't worse. Then, I talked to my insurance company. The woman assigned to my claim was very nice, totally on my side. She was trying to explain the process without confusing me too much. 

I was glad to talk to her, until she came to the part where she said "it was your fault, probably about 10-20% your fault, because you never saw the other vehicle." Huh? I’m partially to blame because I didn't see anything? It was in those moments spent on the phone, trying to comprehend, that I got defensive about my defensive driving. This is when I got angry. 

The reason it's my fault (at least partially) is a concept called comparative negligence, and even if you are dealing with the best employees of the best insurance company, willing to get you through an unpleasant process with a bare minimum of inconvenience, comparative negligence is one of the reasons why the insurance industry is so good at making people feel so bad. 

Comparative negligence is a way for the insurance companies to figure out who’s paying what when someone makes a claim. In certain situations, I can see its value. It likely wouldn't be on the books if the finest legal minds hadn't signed off on it. But there’s no way I could have avoided this accident, your honor.

Cars approach busy intersections all the time. That’s what makes them “busy.” Most of the cars stop, even though some of them are coming pretty fast. If I regularly drove as if every car that approached an intersection might run the light, I’d get hit by the cars behind me, regularly. 

Somebody told me that, under this statute, the only way I wouldn't be somewhat at fault in an accident is if I wasn't in my car at all, like a hit and run, or if the other party was an animal, like a deer. I guess the good news is I wasn't a deer running through that green light, or else it would have been 100 percent my fault. 

At the same time I’m wrapping my mind around that, I had to worry about the damage assessment dude giving me a fair actual value for my destroyed vehicle, or should I say, the value of the vehicle a split second before it became an $8,000 fixer-upper. I took the guy’s first settlement offer, and I picked up my check because I just wanted to move past it. 

What makes all of it so tiring is the process of assigning blame. I didn't want to blame anyone (least of all myself in this case). After tempting fate, the scratch on my leg and I wanted to go home and call it a day. Even if blame is parceled out in percentages, and recorded in legal documents, nobody ever wins. The blame game makes people feel bad, no matter which side you're on. 

Again, it’s all about moving past it. We all make mistakes, but the faster you can move past them, the better you feel, which might be the reason I’m not angry at The Woman Who Bumped Her Head. Would a psychiatrist come to this same conclusion, or would that person say I’m in denial, transferring my feelings of anger onto the insurance company? My wife’s theory is that I sustained an injury to the part of my brain that builds tolerance for corporate and legal bureaucracy. That lobe was weak and puny to begin with, so if it’s true, it wouldn't be any great loss. 

Will I ever be mad at the Woman Who Bumped Her Head? Even though I’m not a mental health professional, I’ll say it’s not likely. Will I ever stop being mad at the insurance company for telling me it was my fault? It will take some time, but probably. Will losing a car always feel exactly like the loss of my trusted blankie when I was five years old? I’ll leave that one to the shrink.

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