Crash Course

How to drive responsibly, but not too responsibly

Recently, two automobiles in motion attempted to violate a law of physics. They tried to occupy the same place at the same time. I believe this is what is commonly referred to as a “car accident.” You’ll forgive me for being a little unclear—I’d never participated in one before.

I was merging onto a busy street during morning rush hour, and suddenly there were brakes screeching. And then suddenly I was screeching. In the past, there have been mishaps involving cars and myself, to be sure: near misses, occasional scrapes in a parking lot. I once tried to zoom through a yellow light and got busted by the camera cop. But in my thirty-some years of having a driver’s license, I’d never been party to a collision of two cars.

The most important thing, of course, was that everyone was all right. Well, that’s what everyone told me is the most important thing. Really the most important thing was that it wasn’t my fault.

Okay, it might have been my fault. There was a yield sign, and apparently I didn’t yield sufficiently. I’m sure it’s because there was a bright red-and-white yield sign that distracted me. Nevertheless, I managed to pull over to the median and get out of the car to check the damage. The rear bumper of my car and the front bumper of the other car were joined together in an unholy union.

There are so few things at which I excel, and I really thought I’d mastered not getting into car accidents. Now I could cross that off the list, too. I stood there in the cold, gray bluster of Minnesota winter and cried. How could I ever expect my husband to love me, what with my big butt and my ruining of our car?

The other driver remained in his car and continued to talk on his cell phone. I was sure he was calling my friends and family to inform them what a loser I was. When he finally emerged, I braced myself. The one thing I knew was to not admit anything. I knew that you could incriminate yourself by saying even the most benign things. Uttering “I own a DustBuster” might cost me thousands of dollars and years of jail time.

But here is the problem: I am a woman, I am a Minnesotan, and I was raised Catholic. There is always something for which to be sorry. And I cannot begin to describe to you the Herculean effort it took for me not to immediately and profusely apologize. Yes, I knew that official responsibility would be sorted out by the insurance companies, but at the very least, I wanted to express regret for the randomness of the universe.

It even more difficult given that—well, yes, in fact—it was my fault. I had not paid attention, and I just wanted to confess. This is why I haven’t pursued a life of crime. Under any sort of scrutiny, I fold immediately. I was sure I’d be taken to police headquarters and interrogated for hours, and soon I’d be confessing to things I hadn’t done—speeding, tailgating, kidnapping the Lindbergh baby—because I felt so rotten, and I wanted everything to be okay. Why not just get it over with?

But taking responsibility for one’s actions is an interesting thing. And by “interesting,” I mean dumb—and quite possibly stupid, too. I want to take responsibility for my actions, but in very small doses. It should be like a homeopathic tincture, taken in tiny increments that allow my body to build up strength.

And therein lies the truth of the matter. What I really wanted was the other guy to take more responsibility than I did, so that my guilt could be quietly erased. Surely he was going too fast, surely he’d been distracted on his cell phone, surely he didn’t need to be on that particular street at that particular time, and—come to think of it—surely he shouldn’t even have been in his car; he should have been reducing his carbon footprint by taking the bus.

The police arrived and guided us through the exchange of insurance information. The forms asked for facts only. I knew that I could state the sequence of events that led to the collision, but I wanted it both ways. I wanted to walk away with a clear conscience, but I didn’t want to admit I’d done anything wrong. That way, I could tell myself that I’d simply told the truth and let the chips fall as they might. In trying to let myself off the hook, I put my mind through so many mental contortions that I lost track of the real story. So when claim number 092401952 was finally processed, I was greatly relieved; fault for the accident was determined to lay with someone named “Driver A.” Deceiving yourself can be so exhausting.



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