December 2, 2009

I missed the exit

Last Saturday night, my family and I were driving back from visiting friends in Sebastopol. Driving down 101, I had been looking for the exit that would cut off a few miles, along Lakeville Highway. My GPS didn't tell me where it was, and I missed it. A few miles later I took our usual exit onto CA-37. No big deal. It probably cost us five minutes.

We're cruising along CA-37 and approach the traffic light where Lakeville Highway reconnects with our route. It's dark out, but I can see that there's a small RV pulled over just beyond the intersection. Since it looks like it's a little off the shoulder and into the right traffic lane, I switch to the left lane. A thought pops up in the back of my mind--an odd place for the RV to be stopped. Maybe there's a fender-bender. I'd better go slow.

A hundred yards from the intersection, I see a few other vehicles have stopped and are off the roadway in a big turnout next to the intersection. One, a minivan, looks strange. I concentrate on the road; Maria remarks on the stopped traffic. There are no emergency vehicle lights flashing. Might just be tourists checking maps or changing a tire.

Fifty yards from the intersection, I can see that the van is entirely smashed in on the side. That's why it looks strange in the glare of headlights. It looks like it's been dropped on its side from five stories high, then set upright again. This can't be good. Maria asks a question about the van, just thinking out loud as we're both processing what we see.

At the intersection, the light is green and I cruise through slowly, avoiding broken glass and some indefinable metal pieces as well as another vehicle in the right lane, this one stopped and pointing mostly the wrong way. There's been an accident. A bad accident, judging from the state of the van. And it's only just happened. No police or ambulance here yet. No sirens in the distance. The other cars appear to have stopped to help, and a half dozen good samaritans jog around here and there. I consider stopping to help, too, but I keep driving. My only useful skills are dialing 9-1-1 and trying to keep people calm. There are enough people on scene who can do what I can; I'd only be in the way.

I am shaken. It was only two years ago that we were hit from behind on I-15, totaling our car. I try to hold out hope for the driver of the smashed minivan, but honestly I can't imagine anyone could survive that. Maria and the boys are talking, agitated, troubled. "What if we hadn't missed our exit? What if we'd been on Lakeville?" We all get quiet when we realize that we'd probably have been at the scene almost exactly at the time of the crash.

A family of four died in that minivan, as did the driver of the car that hit them. Although I did not know them, I mourn for them and am sad.

I think about the random chance that we all face, day to day. I explain the premise behind the movie "Sliding Doors" to my kids, that a small chance occurrence can change a person's--or a family's--future in dramatic ways. What if my GPS had told me that it was CA-116 I wanted? Had I taken the right exit, could it have been my Outback wagon and my family in the newspapers the next day?


jjdebenedictis said...

Your title packs a lot of punch, in hindsight.

I'm glad you and your family are fine, but I also hurt for the loved ones of those who weren't.

Stephen Parrish said...

Yikes. There's a scene in the "Benjamin Button" movie that addresses this phenonmenon---that the little choices we make can have profound consequences.

Now consider this: had you taken the desired exit you wouldn't have been in the accident, rather (because you're a different kind of driver) you would have prevented it.

PJD said...

JJdB, thanks, and yes, I think a lot of people feel hurt for that family and their loved ones.

Stephen, I actually thought a lot about that today while I was writing this post. If only that had happened. But who knows? Maybe by taking the route I did, I managed to accidentally save some other family. We'll never know, though.

PJD said...

As an added tragedy, I've just heard, the home of the family that perished was ransacked and burgled yesterday. Robbers heard of the crash, figured out where they'd lived, and broke into the house. A sad story just gets worse with the spotlight thrown on the selfish, ruthless side of humanity.

fairyhedgehog said...

That's very sad and scary too. Who knows what would have happened if you'd taken that exit?

I'm glad you're safe. (I'm sorry that the other family wasn't.)

Bernita said...

"Your title packs a lot of punch, in hindsight."
Oh yes.
Random consequences. Terrifying in retrospect.

Robin B. said...

I agree, Pete. Chance determines our lives much more than we want to know. I think people block it so they feel they have control in their lives. But really, we only have a passing acquaintance here and there with any sort of control.

I'm so sorry for those people.

Jinksy said...

When we make them, we never know how our choices will pan out, but as long as we realise choices are always important, maybe that will help us make more of the right ones in future.

Merry Monteleone said...

Wow, Pete, I'm glad you and your family are safe - thank God for faulty GPS instructions. Very sorry for the family, and doubly indignant about the robbery.