I was standing outside of church yesterday morning, participating in our traditional post-sermon refreshments and conversation, when I saw a woman killed.
Our church sits on the corner of two fairly busy residential streets. One street has a stop sign; the other doesn’t. It was only happenstance that I was facing the street. As I watched, a car stopped at the stop sign and then proceeded into the intersection, either unaware that a pickup truck was approaching from its right or unaware that the pickup truck didn’t have a stop sign. I know it’s a cliché, but it was as if time slowed down.
The car clipped the pickup truck almost innocently. It was a tap, not a bang like you usually hear, but it was enough to roll the pickup truck over. The driver of the pickup truck, who apparently wasn’t wearing her seat belt, was partially ejected and died at the scene. The truck’s other passengers, two teen-agers, were taken to the hospital.
We used to be warned that most accidents happen within a few miles of home. It’s no secret why. When you’ve lived in the same city for years and drive the same streets every day, they become familiar, and you become complacent. You don’t even think that you have to strap yourself in, especially if you’re making a short trip in a heavy vehicle.
You assume that the other drivers are as familiar with the road as you are. But sometimes other drivers are complacent too. Perhaps they think that they have more time to clear the intersection. Perhaps their attention is diverted by the radio, or a child. Perhaps they think, in a residential neighborhood outside a church, there would be a four-way stop sign. I have no way of knowing.
The what-ifs in a situation like this are maddening. What if the driver of the truck had put on her seat belt? What if she hadn’t been driving a truck with a high center of gravity? What if she had been driving a little more slowly? What if the driver of the car had waited one more second to pull forward?
I’m old enough to have encountered this situation before. One of my first cousins was killed when a woman made an illegal U-turn and smashed into him. It was one of those situations where if either of them had been driving a few seconds slower, the result would have been less catastrophic.
But I’m still frightened by the idea that you can jump into your vehicle for a short trip through the neighborhood and not return. I’m still shocked by the idea that one minute you can be talking to your mother and in the next few minutes she’s gone. I’m still numbed by the idea that, on a sunny Sunday morning, someone can die on a tree-lined street outside a church.
What scares me even more is that I know that I will only carry the fright with me for a few weeks. I always buckle my seat belt, but during that time I will be extra careful at stop signs and even green lights. I will dredge up everything I learned 30 years ago about driving defensively.
But then, as time once again begins to flow at its usual speed, I will return to my normal state of complacence.