A few days ago, coming back from dinner, I pulled away from my parking space at the curb to get walloped by a guy changing lanes. His path was blocked by a line of cars, which is why he was whipping around the car in front of him, and my lane was open, which is why I was pulling out. In any case, the damage was minimal, the classic fender-bender.
That night at home, I got on the phone with my insurance company. I recorded my version of the events, discussed the logistics of getting the car repaired, and made arrangements for transportation in the week ahead. However, when I was on the phone with the claims agent, I discovered some startling news. I was worried that the insurance company might cancel my policy, especially if they determined the accident was all, or in part, my fault. The guy chuckled when I asked. “Mr. Martin,” he said, “I have your driving record in front of me, and I see no reason we’d cancel you. Most of the customers I handle file between three and five claims per year.”
Three to five claims per year?
After I hung up the phone, I sat thinking about the situation. I’ve had a few accidents over the years, all minor and none of them my fault. They all resulted in extreme stress and a bad case of nerves after. I remember one where I could not hold a pen to write down the other driver’s information; I was that nervous. But could it be that I was lucky to have had only three scrapes in ten years or more?
In retracing my excursions around Los Angeles, I realized that although I’d had no major accidents, I have had a huge number of close calls. I have also witnessed some pretty good smack-ups. Traffic has increased exponentially from when I was a new driver. Then there are the more recent distractions of cell phones and texting. Navigation systems, although designed to assist drivers, can also be a hindrance to focused driving.
Talking with some colleagues over the weekend, I found they were bothered by L.A. drivers. They cited the usual problems and distractions. “People drive carelessly,” my wife said when I told her of the three-to-five average number of claims.
Yes, cell phones and texting have made the roads more dangerous. But what I see far more often is that people are too impatient. They believe they have the right-of-way no matter the situation. They pull out into oncoming traffic with reckless disregard. They honk if I hesitate a fraction of a second as a light turns green. They feel they have the right to judge approaching traffic when I am in front of them waiting to make a left hand turn, and they signal their displeasure at having to wait by sitting on their horns. Or, much more dangerous, they swing out and drive into oncoming traffic to make the turn ahead of me. The worst problem I encounter is a driver who will not stay in his own lane. Pulling side by side, I find myself swerving to avoid the vehicle next to me because the driver has drifted over the line separating us. I drive a car that fits snugly in the average traffic lane. There is not a lot of free space, especially when cars are parked at the curb, one idiot leaves his door open in traffic, or there are pedestrians or bike riders in the street. I have had so many close calls that could easily have been catastrophic accidents. Three-to-five claims a year is feasible, if even twenty percent of the close calls became collisions.
I was reminded of how dangerous it is to drive in L.A. not just because of my own accident. Last week, a full on fight broke out between two motorists on a southern California freeway, and it was all caught on cell phone video by a passing driver. Two men beat another to the ground and began kicking him in the head. Once he appeared unconscious, the two thugs jumped in their car and sped away. They were later arrested for the beating. The guy on the ground was also arrested for an outstanding warrant. Road rage is very real, and probably more dangerous then most of the fender-benders that incite it.
In my case, the other driver was aggressive at first, telling me I should have signaled before pulling out—I did—and that I should look before leaping—also did. The fact is that he was impatient and did not want to wait. He saw an opening and shot into my lane. After the impact, I rolled about six inches back to the curb. I ignored his diatribe about my driving and simply asked for his information. By the time we finished, he apologized for the accident, something I was told never to do. I said it was “unfortunate” we had to meet that way, and we went on about our lives.
Still, I awoke several times over the weekend hearing the sickening crunch of the collision, and I wondered if this was the year when my luck would fade, and I would need my insurance company two to four more times before the new year begins.