I discovered this salient fact the hard way last Friday evening at approximately 6:15 p.m. on Interstate 74, mile marker 200—about twelve miles from Champaign, Illinois where I was going to see friends for the weekend. I was coming up on a semi when three cars passed me, so I pulled over into the left lane to pass the slow moving truck when I noticed lights in my rear view mirror. A mid-sized red truck was speeding in the right (slow) lane trying to get past me before we reached the semi; as he pulled alongside, he pulled into my Saturn SUV as if I wasn’t even there.
I swerved left to avoid a full collision, pulling on to the shoulder of the highway. The back end of my Saturn began to slip, so I tried to correct, and the next thing I know I am sliding into the steep and narrow ravine between the east and west bound lanes. Within a second I was rolling over.
One second you’re driving down the highway, listening to Nancy Griffith on the CD player. In the blink of an eye you’re upside down and vaulting through the blackness of time and space. That’s how quick it can happen.
You’ve probably seen a lot of Hollywood movies and TV shows that try to capture the essence of the final moment before your death. Let me tell you from first hand experience that they are complete and utter bunk—the reality of the situation is very, very different. Contrary to popular belief your life does not flash before your eyes in linear motion and the world does not reduce to slow motion. You do not get to be a spectator.
What happens in the moment before you lose consciousness is simply this: brief flashes of what truly matter to you in life. My wife in the passenger seat. My seven year old daughter (in a booster seat) in the back seat. My family and friends. That’s it. Things move too quickly for anything else.
I seriously doubt anyone who has ever been in a situation like this ever thought, “Gee, I wish I had worked longer hours or “Man, I really hate that guy.” No, it forces you to recognize what is important in your life, what truly matters to you.
The last thing I remember as the car came to a halt, upside down and parallel in the fast lane of the opposite side of the highway, was that it kept getting brighter. Hanging upside down, I reached my opposite hand back to get my daughter and used my left hand to unbuckle myself, and then fell and hit the center console, knocking myself unconscious. Then all went black.
60 seconds later I hear my wife, who I am partially lying on top of, screaming at me to get out. I crawl out the window, run around the other side of the car, and am astounded to see a half dozen people already surrounding the car. My wife is pulled out, followed by my daughter. Unbelievably, the man following me on the highway is an EMT, the third person to stop for help is another EMT, and the fourth gentleman to stop is a third year resident medical doctor. Within a minute of crashing, we are surrounded by medical professionals. Even more surreal, within another minute, an Illinois State Trooper who was ferrying a car back to Champaign is there, having been less than a mile from the crash when it happened.
The car is totaled. Completely and utterly destroyed. But, and this is a tribute to everyone at General Motors who ever worked on the Saturn Vue from concept to production, it literally saved our lives. Many of you don’t know that I have also published books in other fields. My favorite project to date has been bringing out a massive book from Ken Kayser, a long-time GM exec and the world’s leading Corvette authority, from my imprint called The Tachometer Press. If the GM Saturn people had one fourth the intelligence and attention to detail that Ken possesses, it does not surprise me in the least that the Saturn performed the way it did, even under such extreme circumstances.
We are all unhurt, save for bumps and bruises and a cut on my hand. It is a miracle that only hits home the next day when we go pick up the few possessions that managed to be saved from being strewn out across the highway. The tow truck driver who pulled in the car asked me what I remember, I tell him about how everything got brighter and then went dark again. He says “You know what that was, right? It was a semi traveling in the hammer lane who swerved and missed you by a foot.” I’d never heard the term “hammer lane” before, so I asked him what it meant. He cringed. “Lots of sleepy truck drivers out there at night…” I shuddered.
He then explained that if I had stayed on the road one second longer, I would have flipped into the ravine and went sidelong into the cement supports of the underpass that was less than a hundred feet from where we ended up. So many what ifs, and all of them bad.
The most amazing part of all this is my seven year old daughter. We had role-played various scenarios in the past, like what to do if you are in a car and it goes into the water. We had told her if she was ever in a car crash and was flipped upside down, to NOT undo her seat belt as she could suffer serious injury falling to the ground, and that she could be in shock and wander into more danger if she got out on her own. She was told hold tight, and in a loud voice say “I’m OK, Please come get me!”
I have never been more proud to report that—with her parents unconscious in the front seat, upside down in the dark—she did exactly this. She held on to her Webkin stuffed frog and yelled clearly “I’m OK, Come get me!” until someone did just that. Amazing. Never even cried, until she saw her daddy bleeding from the cut in his hand.
I would remind everyone that children under 85 pounds should always be in a booster seat, as my daughter was. It keeps the seat belt right where they are supposed to be, and miraculously, she didn’t even have a bruise on her as a result.
I guess my point in writing this is to try and get you to remember what is important in your life. Like everyone else, I get frustrated and angry over small things, but I’d like to believe this event will give me a bit of perspective. But I’ve gone on too long already. I guess what I’d really like you to remember is that, the next time you find yourself getting worked up over something small, just remind yourself you’re not hanging upside down in your car in the hammer lane of the highway with a semi coming at you.
So I am still here, but with a different perspective on life. Interestingly, in the moments after the crash, when I realized everyone was OK, my thoughts turned to all of the things I still want to do in life, and how close I came to not being here to do them. No one, and I mean NO ONE is promised tomorrow. All we have is today, a memory of yesterday, and a dream of the future.
Do your best today. Say your prayers tonight. Try to do better tomorrow. Sounds like a pretty inviting way to live my life, and live my life I will.
My very best to everyone who takes the time to indulge me by visiting my site. I promise to return to the fishing history stuff tomorrow, and to make this a more informative and more entertaining place to visit in the future.
-- Dr. Todd