Thursday, April 29, 2010

Distracted Drivers: A Personal Anecdote

Until yesterday, the subject of distracted drivers and their role in pedestrian accidents was merely an abstract annoyance. When I moved to DC, I quite willingly gave up my car and resorted largely to my own two legs to get me where I needed to be. Periodically one hears a horror story here regarding when a jogger, walker, cyclist, or all around fellow human gets mowed down by an inattentive driver. Recently, there have been a handful of similar incidents where people were seriously hurt. I suppose I may have been remiss to not use that information and apply it to my life, but I always justified my inaction by feeling certain that such a thing would never happened to me. Well, never happened yesterday.

Life has a way of throwing you a curveball from time to time. Yesterday I was on my way to the gym, whereupon I was blindsided by a shuttle bus. Traffic accidents are rarely acts of rationality, but what I found so bewildering is how the situation had happened in the first place. The crossing signal light flashed white, clearly indicating that I was safe to proceed, and with plenty of time to spare, no less. Halfway across the road, something made me look over my left shoulder, where I discovered to my horror that the front bumper of a white bus bearing down, mere inches from me. Had it not been traveling directly in my blind side, I might have had time to avoid it a little earlier.

I screamed and put my arms out reflexively to try to avoid being toppled to the ground. The force of the impact pushed me slightly backwards, and I pivoted hard to my right, like a toreador trying to avoid an angry bull. Fortunately, I was successful in my efforts to avoid the full force of the bus, but I planted awkwardly, coming down hard on my right leg. From the instant my leg hit the pavement, I knew I was going to be in trouble. In shock, I limped my way all the way to the other side of the street.

Two separate witnesses kept asking Are you okay? Are you okay?

I mumbled, I'm okay, I'm okay, I'm okay. That was all I could manage. And by that I suppose I meant, Well, I'm not bleeding to death.

After pausing all of five whole seconds, the bus driver assumed I wasn't seriously hurt and drove away. Granted, I wasn't crumbled to the pavement, but I wasn't exactly the picture of health, either. I should have immediately called the police, but I was stunned and trying desperately to make sense of what had just happened. I was also angry at the reaction of one of the witnesses, a woman who kept asking, Didn't you see it coming? At what point was it my responsibility? I would have had to be looking well over my left shoulder the whole time, when I was completely focused instead straight in front of me, making it across a roadway. I must have used that same crossing a thousand times before, and it seemed incomprehensible that something so familiar 99.9% percent of the time could have created something like this.

As best I can fathom, the driver was making a left-hand turn from a side road onto the larger avenue upon which I was crossing. Either he ran the light altogether or, the light having changed green, neglected to recognize even with permission to drive, pedestrians have the right of way. After the morning rush clears out, that particular avenue is not especially busy. Perhaps he had gotten into the habit of assuming there would be few people, including pedestrians out and about then. Perhaps he had music turned up too high. Perhaps he was distracted by other people in the shuttle, but in any case, why it happened is not nearly as important as the fact that it did.

I may never know what the driver was thinking. After establishing that I was not immediately visibly hurt, he drove away. It took me a long while to come to my senses. I was in shock and didn't do what I should have done in that instance, which would have been to call the police immediately. By the time I did think to do so, I'd already left the scene of the accident, as had the witnesses. At that point, there was nothing I could do. This is another example of when laws, as they are constructed, really fail us. In a crisis situation, people need an advocate and we must stop seeing ourselves as complete strangers in every circumstance imaginable. We can be strangers to each other most of the time, if we wish, but if the system is ever to work effectively, we can't be standoffish when our engagement and involvement is badly needed.

Had someone recognized that I was clearly incapable of reporting what had happened, they could have easily called the police for me. Don't get me wrong. I recognize that Good Samaritans have never been plentiful, but do allow me the ability to take what happened to me and use it as constructive platform to push even more strongly that we really need to look out for each other. But in the meantime, please don't drive while you talk on the phone unless you're using a hands free setup. Please don't ever make assumptions about the traffic conditions on the roads you drive on a consistent basis. They are subject to change at any time. Please don't perceive of pedestrians, joggers, walkers, and foot traffic as impediments to your getting somewhere and in so doing, lose your patience behind the wheel. We've all had close calls before while driving, and I certainly have, too. It's a miracle there aren't more of them, especially now that we have so many distractions and demands upon our immediate attention.

As for me? I've sustained some ligament damage to my right leg. I hope it isn't anything more serious than a severe sprain or minor tear, but I'm having it checked out in any case. Though I find it a challenge to walk now without considerable pain, it's a chilling thought to contemplate that had any number of factors been different, I might have been seriously injured. I can say that from now on, if I'm driving somewhere, I'll be more attentive and deferent to pedestrians, and you can be damn sure I'll be looking in every direction imaginable when it comes time for me to cross the street--any street.

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