I wouldn’t describe myself as a cautious person, but I’ve always had a healthy respect for automobiles — especially in a college town where pedestrians and cyclists play their own version of Frogger every day. It’s almost too easy to think of downtown as an extension of campus. but when students walk right into the street without pausing to actually look at oncoming traffic, it’s a wonder more people don’t get hit on a daily basis. It’s like a trust exercise gone wrong. To be fair, it’s not just pedestrians and bicyclists who are inattentive; it’s only a three mile drive to work, but there’s so much to do! Drink your coffee. Eat your breakfast. Change the music. Put on your makeup. Sing “Lafayette!” on cue. Rehearse a speech. Call the vet. Spill your coffee. Fume about your spouse. Your boss. The traffic. Avoid your mother’s call. Check your makeup. Panic you didn’t wake up in time. Try to remember if you locked the back door. So many distractions, so little time to focus on matters at hand. There’s a healthy segment of the population that commute on bike here, but I wouldn’t do it. I just don’t have quite enough faith in my fellow man to watch out for my safety — and after spending two weeks in hospitals watching my son deal with the aftermath of being hit by a car, I have even less faith.
So I drive.
But it’s not like before. I notice I hesitate at intersections now. I’ll wait another several beats after my light turns green, just to triple check that oncoming traffic has stopped. Much like the lost faith in my fellow drivers, I now find I question everyone’s intent. I slow down if the pedestrian even looks like he’s about to step off the curb. I’m more focused on their path than they are. I go out of my way to avoid crowding a cyclist on the road. I find I hold my breath, worried they might do something wildly unexpected and dart out in front of my car (in a college town, this is not necessarily an uncommon thing). I understand this has gotten a bit irrational. But it’s the cyclists I focus on. Somehow, each cyclist I see triggers an imagined re-envisioning of an event only weeks past, still fresh in my mind and raw on my emotions. I can’t make it stop.
A body at rest remains at rest or, a body in motion remains in uniform motion, until acted upon by a resultant force.
Like a nightmare from which I cannot wake, I cannot move, I cannot call out a warning; I can only helplessly watch the scene play out in my mind in excruciatingly slow motion, much like one of those crash test dummy videos whose sole purpose is to demonstrate how the human body is no match for physics and Newton’s laws of motion. I can see the surprise on the cyclist’s face as the oncoming vehicle barrels toward them, knowing they can’t get out of the way in time. I see the SUV’s grill hitting the bicyclist, pinning his leg to his bike and fracturing the ankle before the body abandons its seat, the bike itself being cast off and left riderless on the road.
The resultant force is equal to mass times acceleration.
I watch the body slide up over the hood of the car and hit the windshield with a fair amount of force, even leaving a tuft of hair on the newly spidered safety glass as a marker, like an X on a map denoting “I Was Here”. I hear the rider’s shoulder blade hit the car and fracture on impact, while tiny shards of glass embed themselves in the open wound of the arm, like tiny glistening talismans. I think about how big a motorized vehicle is, how heavy it is compared to the fragility of a human being.
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
As though it were happening in front of me, I can see the body being launched airborne, perhaps sideways, off the front of the car. Unsure how to navigate in the air, the rider’s body lands awkwardly on the road with arms outstretched, uselessly attempting to break the fall but, instead, merely fracturing still more bones on impact. In my mind I hear the cyclist’s head slam against the asphalt as its velocity drags the body across the road, friction slowing the rider while at the same time chewing up exposed skin (in late summer, there’s a lot of exposed skin). Finally, I see the cyclist’s body lying limp on the ground, broken, bleeding, hopefully still breathing, silently begging for somebody to stop and help.
An object at rest will remain at rest.
Perhaps the most frightening — and frustrating — aspect about this nightmare is that I’ve lived through it twice now. Four years ago in this very town, TheCoed was hit by a young college aged driver in an SUV while she passed through an intersection just off campus. The driver, intent on turning right on red at the intersection, hit her accelerator and turned into the right lane when she saw a gap between cars. What she didn’t see was my daughter already occupied that same gap on her scooter, obeying traffic laws and legally where she was supposed to be. She may not have seen my daughter, but I imagine she felt the impact when the SUV hit her. Newton’s laws predicted then that her body would also continue in motion as she left her scooter, just as they did with my son. Incredibly she broke no bones, but has dealt with increasingly constant pain over the ensuing years, a constant reminder of the impact on her life and her singing. Only now is she beginning to find relief from the pain in the hands of a skilled chiropractor.
These collisions haunt me, playing nonstop in the back of my brain. The visions haunt my waking hours. They haunt my sleep. For weeks I’ve been off my game. Distracted. Unfocused. Much like the scene I can’t get out of my mind, I find my life once again on repeat, as if I myself have been hit by a truck, my body slowly sailing through the air, free falling through time and space. I am desperate to find my footing, but still I fall. Incredibly, this makes twice that my life has been ripped apart by drivers who were just not quite focused enough on the task at hand and, distracted, slammed their two ton vehicles into my flesh and blood. Young people I love, in the prime of their lives, who must now deal with the repercussions of your momentary distraction. A moment of not seeing what’s directly in front of you. Do you lie awake at night, haunted by visions of the person you hit? Doomed to replay the accident again and again? Because I do.
An equal and opposite reaction.
I’m finding it difficult to have faith in my fellow drivers. I’m finding it difficult not to hate you. I’m finding it difficult to force myself to stay at rest while my mind careens out of control, constantly replaying these scenes. I wish I wasn’t so hypervigilant and hyperconscious, looking for danger around me as I drive into work and home again at the end of the day. But now it is everywhere I go and everywhere I look. Even at work, my attention wanders to the plate glass windows by my desk to the intersection outside where I’ve witnessed the results of distraction multiple times, watching emergency responders load injured bodies into the backs of ambulances, police cruisers blocking traffic as they protect the scene and question bystanders. I just can’t keep finding myself at this intersection of fear and trepidation.
The impact is killing me.