Crunch time

Here's my definition of Hell-on-Earth: The aftermath of a car wreck.

I don't mean some terrible high-speed accident, the kind that claims lives or maims people. Those are too horrible to consider, even though we take that chance every time we get behind the wheel. No, I'm talking about simple crashes, those little bumper-crunchers that happen all the time to the innocent and the inept and the inattentive.

I've been in three of these mishaps in the past three years (none of them my fault). Every time, my life passes before my eyes at the moment of impact. Not my past life, but my immediate future. Before the tires have even finished squealing, I see myself talking to police and insurance adjustors and claims inspectors and body shop owners and rental car clerks.

It's not the crash that's so bad (any wreck you walk away from being a pretty good wreck), it's what comes next. Untold weeks of paperwork and worry and bother. For those of us who work at home, the aftermath is one more thing we must do, one more straw on that poor old camel's back. For many of us, the schedule already is packed full. Throw in a wild card like car repairs, and our lives quickly become jumbled and out of control.

These woes are fresh on my mind because my wife and I recently were involved in separate fender-benders within 48 hours of each other. Both of our cars were wounded, but not killed, and we're busily taking turns putting them in the body shop to be mended.

Nothing serves as a better reminder of how dependent we are on the automobile. Without our cars, we're stranded. We can't run our errands, fetch our children, make a quick hop to the store. Suddenly, everything is inconvenient.

Rental cars (especially those paid for by insurance companies) solve part of the problem, but they also add one more chore to the list. You have to go get the rental car and you have to return it when you're done with it. (The rental companies sort of insist on that.) And the smooth, new, ding-free rental car reminds you that your own vehicle will never be quite the same again. It might look the same when the wizards at the body shop are done, but you'll always know which fender isn't original equipment and in which areas the paint doesn't quite match.

So you lose something in a car wreck that you never really get back. Pride and confidence in your familiar auto. It's just not the same once you and the car have survived a wreck together. For months after a crash, you'll listen for any funny noise while driving, any sign that some damage went undiscovered. You won't trust the old warhorse the way you did in the past.

A wreck does something to the drivers, too. Even if we're unscathed physically, a car crash juggles our psyches. We get twitchy behind the wheel, eyeballing our fellow motorists, braced all the time for someone to do something stupid that will cost us another round of insurance claims and pains and repairs.

With my last car, I got rear-ended twice within one week. You can bet I watched my rear-view mirror every time I hit the brakes for months after that, expecting someone with slow reflexes to try to park in my trunk.

In my latest fender-bender, a guy driving the wrong way on a one-way street blew through an intersection (after all, the red lights weren't facing his way!) and creamed my car and one other.

Now, I'll be slowing at every intersection with a one-way street, my head whipping around, making sure everyone is going the right direction.

It'll all wear off eventually. I'll relax behind the wheel once more. My car will be more or less back to normal. I'll zoom along familiar streets, handling the familiar controls, never thinking about whether my fellow motorists are about to plow into me.

And that'll mean I'm due for another collision.

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