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1 June 2003 (Sunday): there but for the grace of grass

I had a near-death experience on an interstate highway this afternoon, and my pulse rate didn't even go up. I wonder what this means.

(Yes, I'm fine. Thanks if you were going to ask.)

Here's what happened, near as I can tell: I was in the left lane, merging into the next lane over because mine was ending. Just as I was changing lanes, a car two lanes over also changed lanes, right into the spot I was hoping to occupy. (Also near as I can tell, this car didn't signal, or I would, I hope, have seen this coming.) I braked to let it pass, but I guess it saw me and braked too, and suddenly I was neck to neck with another car just as my lane narrowed to nothing. The speed limit was 70 mph here, so even after braking we were both going about 65 mph. I was out of time.

So I aimed for the shoulder. My left wheels hit the gravel surface first and I spun around, a full 360 degrees. I got a good split-second look at oncoming traffic before I managed to yank the car onto the grassy median. If it had been a guardrail instead of grass, I probably wouldn't be here.

What got me was that there was never, at any point, any sense of panic. I reacted as though it were some trivial unexpected situation, like I'd just been told the supermarket was out of my favorite brand of orange juice. Okay, that's not good. What's the plan now? You have to decide. It wasn't quite denial, though. My brain flashed through the possibilities with incredible speed; I remember bracing myself, in those climactic milliseconds, for fatal injury. But none of it struck me as frightening, not even in the minutes afterward as I sat there in the narrow field of weeds, hazard lights blinking, waiting for a reasonable break in traffic so I could ease back onto the road. I could feel the adrenaline racing, but my hands were steady. All I wanted to know was: What just happened there exactly? Who was driving badly, me or the other driver? Did I do the right thing? Am I supposed to report this to somebody? How do I keep that from happening again?

It's the fear in waiting that's agony. Sometimes I think I would like death to come for me suddenly, without warning. Though preferably not for a few years yet.

posted by enjelani @ 07:44 PM PST

Replies: 13 comments

Scary, scary, scary. Glad that you are alright.

posted by Adam @ 01 06 2003 09:01 PM PST

I nearly went over an embankment after hitting an icy patch of road, and there was a similar lack of fear... just this strangely collected (calm might be the wrong word, but it would be close) "sense" of rapidly-calculated assessment. It also involved a 360 degree spin stopping in the mud just off the road and about 2 1/2 feet from the drop off. I also remember bracing myself for the possibility of injury and trying mostly to shrink into my seat and not get thrown around if the car went tumbling.

Black boxes also report that the very last words of fighter pilots whose plans are about to slam into the ground (or a mountain) are "shit" or "dammit" spoken almost deadpan... for one reason or another, very little fear or terror is vocalized in that last utterance; the pilot's just weighed all his options, realized that there were none, and faced instant (and probably very painless) death.

What to make of it, I don't know. It's quite curious, but I would agree that most of the panic or fear seems to arise in the anticipation, and in split-second things like this, there's no time for that. As to the lack of fear or nerves afterwards, maybe that's just the calm reassurance of knowing that things were okay afterwards... and more relief than fear of what just transpired. I dunno.

Whatever the underlying pscyh phenom at work here, I'm also just glad you're alright.

posted by m. mellow @ 01 06 2003 10:07 PM PST

that would be "planes" and not "plans." Stupid typos.

posted by m. mellow @ 01 06 2003 10:08 PM PST

Geezus H Montgomery Christ!

I think I got more stressed out and tensed up reading your recounting of it than you did going through it! :P

I'm curious if you'll be replaying it continuously in your mind over the next few days and thinking of silly things you shoulda/woulda/coulda've done differently. That's what I did when I got held up, but then again, I had far too much time to think about it during the situation. Not sure why my (our?) brain tends to get in the way of itself sometimes.

Echoing the others, *very* relieved to hear everything turned out a-ok :) I'm not ready for my favorite hug-whore to leave just yet!


posted by syndromes @ 01 06 2003 10:34 PM PST

i am *so* glad that you are okay. (((enjelani))) my heart is racing just sitting here thinking about it.

i have never been in a situation quite that extreme, but i did experience something similar in a bad car accident when i was 19. it was late at night, in an unfamiliar neighborhood; the whole thing seemed, and still seems, incredibly surreal. it was really a pretty "simple" accident-- as i was completing a left turn onto a major street, i was struck by a speeding car. what strikes me the most, looking back, is that same lack of panic that you described. i remember being confused: "what hit me? did i not check carefully enough before making that turn? is this my fault? which direction am i facing now?" and so on. while the car spun out of control, i wasn't thinking about death or injury-- it was like i calmly accepted what was happening, even when the car stopped and i realized that the driver's side door was blocked by a fence. it wasn't until i got home, and my mom offered me sleeping pills, that i realized i had been reliving the accident in my head for several hours.

these things are scary. again, i'm *really* glad you're okay. and glad you're coming home soon...

posted by Lynn @ 01 06 2003 10:50 PM PST

me too on the reaction thing... oh look, gee, there's a semi heading straight at me, i'm going to die, oh look, he's run off the road and i'm still alive.

um... please be careful. :)

posted by soren @ 02 06 2003 12:01 AM PST

I was tooling happily down Palm drive with fellow student Pieter in my VW Fastback when a flicker in my eye caused me to look to my left to see a campus utility truck running a stop sign and aimed at my door. As I watched transfixed, my car skidded 90 degrees so that the truck brushed past my door rather then driving into it. My car straightened out and came to a stop. I turned quizzically to my passenger and asked what just happened. He was dripping sweat as he explained that I had been shifting gears so furiously that my hand was a blur, and that I had somehow made the VWs rear end come around so that the truck careened by without touching us, and then I had straightened the car so that oncoming traffic did not hit us. I did not remember doing all of that, or even knowing how to do all that, but as the dust settled around us, I did experience an adrenaline rush and started shaking. I am guessing that if its not your time, all that ancient quickness reaches up through the millennia to save you from the rending claws and slashing teeth. Welcome back from the edge.

posted by theo @ 02 06 2003 10:25 AM PST

Dude ....

Dude. (!)

posted by zach @ 02 06 2003 03:13 PM PST

strangely enough, i feel just the way you did when this wonderful occurance happened. "oh, dear, yep, she could die about now. well, i guess my sister's in dire peril. okie." perfectly cool. i dunno why. adrenaline, though. what fun.

by the way, what's the point in saying "be careful" when this is a perfectly normal happening? changing lanes is something we (or rather, you drivers, i've got a year 'til my permit) do every day on the highway. i'd say enji's pretty careful (but she needs to watch out for walls, be carefull about those, enji), so what's the point in telling her to be careful? I suppose it's like saying, "eww, this is gross. here try some. isn't it gross?"

posted by Liz @ 02 06 2003 04:52 PM PST

this has come up a lot lately ... the idea that you never really know how youre going to handle a situation until youre actually in it. you think you know, you imagine howd it go down, then one day youre in the thick of it and out the otherside. and now you KNOW. in a way its reassuring. :)

related story: a blizzard back in north carolina, me driving in worsening conditions, my car spinning around once, then half again, my car now facing back toward home, a sign? ill take it ... slowly.

glad to hear your ok :)

posted by mark s @ 02 06 2003 11:01 PM PST

I totaled my car once; I had 200+ feet to think about it too - and at 15 to 20mph that is a quite some time! But oily ice gives you no steering or breaking authority and I eventually smacked into another car. Hehe. Ooops! Gone was my sense of predictability in the world! GONE! least for a few weeks. I had visual replay dreams of the event for a few weeks - quite natural & no big deal.

So, you've lived through less raw acceleration than a theme park ride, but you've had a very rare opportunity to "KNOW" - as was aptly pointed out previously. And "knowing" is okay, but I would strongly discourage tempting fate again any time soon! :-P

*Shiver* 'Glad you're okay.

posted by bill @ 03 06 2003 11:55 PM PST

I meant to ask you to be careful, but Liz shamed me out of it. Do watch out for those walls, though ;-)

Here's an un-scientific conjecture: People react in sudden emergencies as they do in daily life, simply because it takes less processing power to follow an established pattern than to find a new one. So maybe it comes as no surprise that when my own car lost traction on black ice, I was mostly curious. "How interesting: I am driving in the ditch, straight through the snow. Oh look, there's a big boulder up ahead. I wonder what'll happen next."

posted by beefeater @ 04 06 2003 06:11 PM PST

Sheesh! *hug* I mean, fer Chri... *hug* Wow. *sigh of relief* Yeah.

posted by moonpuddle @ 10 06 2003 10:43 PM PST