In an Instant

It’s really strange how, in the moment prior to an accident, your perception of reality speeds up and everything around you seems to slow to a crawl. And it’s extraordinary that, when you see the accident coming, your singular focus becomes the physics of avoiding or minimizing the imminent physical impact. The scope of your life suddenly narrows, like a camera with a wide-angle lens focusing on the pin of a needle.

And what’s even more amazing is how, in even the most unforeseen accidents, we always take a split-second prior to impact to subconsciously assign blame. To think, fuuuuck, I knew I shouldn’t have done that. Or alternatively, WTF?? This guy…

That happened to me yesterday as I got onto Interstate 76. Let me explain.

Just moments before the occurrence I’d been sitting beside the highway at a red light, waiting and sizing up the hill ahead of me. I was thinking about how I wouldn’t be one of those people who gets up to the very end of the on-ramp and then stops, waiting for a traffic gap of at least 10 car-lengths before they feel safe enough to sputter onto the highway.

You see, that’s what always happens at this particular on-ramp, at Green Lane. Most days I’m already on the highway by the time I approach Green Lane. (Today is different because I took a different route home.) Every time I pass by, I see a queue of cars waiting to get on, and I heed the urge to accelerate. I think to myself, If you’re too timid to merge onto a highway, then I sure as hell don’t want you in front of me. And as I pass them, I look to my right, hoping to catch a glimpse of the non-senior citizens who can’t manage a simple on-ramp. I mutter at all of them, stay there…idiots.

This time, though, it was my turn to approach the on-ramp that so many others had found unmanageable. It was a clear night, and a yellow light for traffic crossing under the highway reflected off my car’s hood. I let the car drift forward, my foot hovering above the gas pedal, ready to mash it in as soon as the light facing me turned green.

A few seconds later I was racing up the hill. Or trying to race, at least. A quarter of the way up, I was only going 25mph, so I forced the transmission to downshift. Halfway up, the speedometer was teasing 45. When the concrete separator on my left gave way, I could see the highway traffic rushing by. It was heavier than usual, and as I gauged my speed to that of the passing cars, I contemplated whether I could get the additional 15mph needed from my aged, overdriven Taurus to glide seamlessly into traffic. I thought about how I might have to joust my way into the lane, relying, as I often do, on that firmware that forces other drivers to yield their space as they see your on-ramp space running out. And how, speaking of space running out, it might help if I knew how much room was left until it was time to start nudging in.

It’s when I glance at the road in front of me that everything happens. My eyes widen, and my right foot snaps back from the gas pedal. My lungs inhale, and my arms extend until I’m pushing the steering wheel as far away from me as possible. A pair of red lights is looming ahead, two snake eyes, and they are separating rapidly.

Slow-motion begins. My upper body flashes hot, the physical equivalent of WTF?? I push in the brake pedal. A half-second later, I’m grateful that I’m not skidding and yet mindful that I won’t stop in time. My eyes dart to the right and, not seeing a car on the shoulder, my hands follow suit. During the pivot, I lean forward to see the front-left corner of my car maneuver around the right side of his bumper like the nose of a guided missile around a building. I whip the wheel back and, seeing open road ahead of me, I take my foot off the brake and coast past him. Side by side I think, This guy…

I swerve back onto the road and, this being the end of the on-ramp, accelerate into highway traffic, looking back only briefly at the car I just passed.

The danger has passed. I start breathing again.

My forehead was hot and perspiring a few seconds ago, and now it feels like there’s ice in my pores. I clench the wheel with both hands, taking a second to wipe each palm off onto my lap. I shrug my shoulders uncomfortably, because my back feels damp.

I think about what transpired. Matching the rear of the car to the dark front end that I glimpsed in the mirror, I realize that that was a Dodge Caravan completely stopped at the top of the on-ramp. Some schlub who was waiting for the highway traffic to stop and invite him on. I imagine how, if some father had been beside the minivan, changing a tire, I would have run him right over. I push the thought out of my mind because it’s unsettling, and well, that didn’t happen.

The car is filled with the noxious smell of burnt rubber and discs. I roll down several windows to let out the wind sweep out the tension and its byproducts.

The episode begins to evaporate from my thoughts. Life expands. I have somewhere to be.

I look to my left, and then to my right. I judge which lane is moving faster, veer my car into position, and hit the gas.

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