Accidents Will Happen: Picking Up and Moving On with Integrity

Ouch That's Gotta Hurt: If this photo isn't depressing, I don't know what is.

When I wrote this piece, I was not sure I was ready to talk about it. I had not even told the story to my Beloved yet. But, I thought, maybe writing about it would make it easier. That was over 5 months ago. Since then, I’ve told my Beloved part of the story, but this is the first time I’ve gone through it in any detail. I’m still not sure I’m ready to talk about it.

About a year before I met my Beloved, I totaled an almost-new Geo Prizm. I was much younger then, a young twenty-something carefree, still living with my parents. (That’s a different story, which I’ve queued to run this Friday.)

For the next twenty years, I never got into an accident.

Well… Yes, I occasionally ran my right tire up against the curb. Or did the Boston bump while parallel parking. And twice within the past several years, my car has been damaged while parked on the street here. And neither time did the damager seek me out or leave a note. In one instance, I managed to settle with my insurance company, who paid to have the car repaired despite the fact that they couldn’t pin it on anyone specifically. In the other instance, my mechanic managed to find a good-quality replacement part from a junkyard, gave me a great price on the repair.

But for twenty years, I myself caused no damage to anyone else’s person or property. A perfect driving record.

A record that ended on February 6, 2012. And this is the part that I’m not sure I’m ready to talk about yet.

I kinda collided with a car parked at a corner along one of the streets here. I don’t want to go into detail. Suffice it to say that I was driving stupid and not paying as much attention as I should have been to where I was going, and my wimpy Saturn SL1 brushed up against a silver Toyota Camry—a cliché, yes, but factual. And the Saturn won. The collision itself makes for a relatively boring story. The more interesting part is what happened immediately afterward.

The owner of the damaged car was nowhere to be seen.

I became acutely aware of the perverse incentives in a situation such as this. What to do? The ideal thing would have been to avoid the collision in the first place. That was my first thought, a reflection of our blame-centered culture. But I don’t have a time machine: too late, move on. So do you want to deal with the situation as it currently exists? Or do you just want to beat yourself down? Some people, I know, prefer the latter.

I actually considered just driving away, leaving some poor insurance company to deal with a boatload of damage— not damage to my car, which came out with a few scratches so minor that my Beloved couldn’t tell they were there, even after I pointed them out to her. But the Camry, it looked like it had been put through a monster-truck-sized orange juicer. And I actually considered just leaving someone else to deal with it. After all, I live in the city, not in some tight-knit community where everyone knows all their neighbors. Anybody could have caused that damage, and you may never be able to find out who.

On the other hand, “doing the right thing” (as they say) would mean I get to pay for the damage, or get to pay increased car insurance premiums; would mean I get to fill out arcane government accident forms. And I get to face my friends and family and feel like crap until I can finally live down the humiliation, if that’s even possible. And I can no longer lay claim to “accident-free for 20 years and counting.” So lying means I can cheat on several counts and get away with it, right?

I also had no idea what kind of person the owner of the other car might be. He might be one of those unreasonable, over-excitable jackasses I’m always facing out on the road, completely uninterested in how much of his karma he’s wasting, and completely incapable of a rational thought. The kind who would much rather beat down anyone else, because it makes him feel bigger and better and stronger than everyone else, than behave calmly and sensibly. Not all of my neighbors are of that sort— I don’t know that any are of that sort, but some of them clearly do not always consider that there may be other people in the world besides themselves.

And to avoid dealing with all that, all I’d have to do is find a way to live with myself.

Living with myself was not the problem. Someone as intelligent, inventive, and ingenious as I should have no trouble rationalizing some reason why running away produces the “right” outcome. I may care about karma, but karma can be rationalized away. Making the world a better place is at least as much perception as it is reality; just ask any politician.

The threat of official retaliation was also not the problem, because I didn’t actually believe anyone was going to pay to investigate a crime like this, to canvas the entire neighborhood, looking for the one or two people who might have seen something, who could have witnessed the hit-and-run damage, at least not for damage this small. (More recent events have changed my mind on that count, by the way, but that’s a different story.) Much cheaper just to pay for the damage, I thought— as I knew far too well, having gone through the experience from the other side of the relationship.

And that was the clincher. That I had been on the other side of the relationship.

So I left a note on the damaged car’s windshield, apologizing for the damage, listing my contact information, and promising to do right. And I took a complete set of photos documenting the scene. And I informed my insurance company of the incident. And I printed out the arcane government accident forms, which I filled out by hand and copied and mailed— Haven’t these people ever heard of the Internet?

At that point, there was no going back. Nor did I want to go back, even though I still felt like shit.

What do you do when you encounter a situation like this? Maybe it’s not an auto accident. Maybe it’s falling off the wagon. Or cheating on your diet. Or failing to deliver as promised. What do you do when you don’t live up to your own expectations or desires?

This is an issue I wrestle with constantly. And I rarely get it right.

Do you allow yourself to be scolded and beat down? Or do you try to build yourself from the experience, to find something you can use to make yourself a better person? Are you less of a person because you screwed up? Or are you more of a person because you’ve experienced life in all its dramatic gory?

(And no, that’s not a typo.)

In this case, the owner of the Camry turned out to be a quiet, older gentleman, who seemed sincerely surprised that I was not some young punk. The repairs cost more than I had expected, because the damage was more extensive than I had first thought, and because cars are damned expensive now. We had some trouble getting all the insurance payments straightened out, but my insurance company did come through without too much fuss— Good insurance company! I don’t yet know how much my insurance premium will be going up; that shoe is still to drop. And his Camry looks almost as good as new now. I trust it’s running fine. The whole process was relatively painless.

Now, what was the problem, again?