How I Totaled My Favorite Car

1991 Geo Prizm (Not mine, just the same model and color)

On the morning of December 8, 2010, I passed two—not just one but two—accidents on the highway. Usually, there aren’t any. But that day, one of them closed down the entire highway. And I was one of the first batch of drivers to get caught in the resulting traffic jam, even before news of the accident hit the news. The experience gave me some time to think, and I recalled accident stories from my past.

That’s when I decided to write this story.

(Yes, that’s sometimes how long it takes me to go from post idea to final publication.)

(By the way, this is not exactly a funny story. But it should be relatively fun to read, and I’m desperate for Friday material this week. So—sorry—this is what you’re stuck with.)

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.

Just months before, I had driven my first car until it literally died, wouldn’t go any more, a 1980’s-era Dodge Aries, brown, formerly owned by a little old lady who drove it to church every Sunday (or at least that’s what the salesman claimed). I, on the other hand, drove it to school every day during my college years, then to work every day in the years following. And it was on such a trip, after the engine unbeknownst to me had used up or leaked out all its oil, that the poor vehicle got done in.

That’s been my general pattern, to drive a car until it won’t go any further, or at least until it’s too much trouble to get out and push.

To replace the Aries, I got a blue Geo Prizm, a dealer demo unit if I recall correctly. It is the only deep-blue car I have ever called my own, even if only for a little while. And I’ve always dreamed of getting another deep-blue car, when I can save enough money to buy myself any car I want.

The thing about the Prizm: the steering was way more sensitive than that of the Aries. And if you know anything about engineering control systems—and I did at the time—you know what kinds of problems that can cause. My brain had gotten used to steering a car that was much less sensitive, and so I tended to overcorrect while I was driving, causing the car to swerve, unless I was paying close attention. And I obviously wasn’t paying close enough attention on that fateful February morning, about 20 years ago.

Digging Out My First Car (Winter 1988)

The snow that month had piled up in large white banks of ice along the sides of the highway, and (I later learned) there were reports of black ice on the roads that morning. I was driving to work, about 5 years of driving experience under my belt, listening to music, maybe singing along, rolling along Route 128, down one the four-lane sections. I was in the third lane from the right, and my exit was coming up in a few miles. Only a few other cars shared the road that early in the morning, but one of them decided to also change lanes, from the right, at the same time I was moving in from the left, and without using a directional signal.

(As a friend I met later in life put it, “Gonna make a turn? Tell the world about it!”)

We were on a collision course, so I instinctively pulled left on the steering wheel, overcorrecting. I remember feeling the car lunge to the left, possibly slipping on black ice, possibly because I had just yanked the steering wheel. Regardless, I tried to correct for the lunge, overcorrected again in the opposite direction. Then re-overcorrected back to the left, and re-re-overcorrected to the right, and so on, swerving back and forth for a second or two, out of control.

This is what control-systems engineers call “oscillation.” (It’s the same effect, by the way, that you hear as a squeeeeeeal when the sound engineer turns up the microphone too loud.)

So here I am swerving back and forth at 55 miles an hour on the interstate in the middle of winter. This was 1992: I was not wearing a seatbelt. And I remember thinking, just before I hit the ice bank, that I was going home to see God. I felt such a relaxed peace about the prospect. That relaxed peace is probably what saved my life.

The next thing I remember, people were gathered around the car, and an ambulance was on its way. Half the contents of my car had scattered over the road. My nice, sweet, almost-new, deep-blue Prizm had run half-way up the ice bank in the median of the highway, before gravity pulled it barreling back down into the pavement.

(I managed to get a good look at it later: from the front, it looked like the letter W; and its rear looked like a parallelogram; the hood no longer opened, and the trunk no longer closed; and I managed to pull out the nifty new cassette deck I had just installed, before they hauled the rest of the car into the crusher.)

As for me, I got to ride in an ambulance to the hospital—the only time I have ever ridden in an ambulance—and got to pay the bill for it later, too. The doctor at Newton-Wellesley gave me a good once-over. I got off way better than the car had: a nasty bruise on my forehead and a sore neck, as well as a remembrance of two lessons learned, which I have since never forgotten: always wear a seat belt, and always plan for the idiot two lanes over from you to do something stupid.

-TimK

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