Brakes screeching. Tires smoking. Horn blaring. Collision Imminent. No matter how hard I tried, I would not avoid crashing into the car in front of me.
Despite being a popular destination, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, lacks any interstates. Traffic crowds the divided highways and two-lane roads dotted with roadside businesses. Drivers have to remain alert at all times for vehicles turning in and out of those businesses.
And that is what the driver in front of me planned on doing, turning right into a gas station. He came from the left lane, moved in front of me, and slowed down dramatically to turn. His sudden lane change and stopping in front of me caught me off guard.
I braked, but the 30,000 pounds of RV needed far more distance to stop.
I couldn’t swing left, the lane choked with cars full of families headed home from the beach.
I couldn’t swerve right, the parking lot of the gas station crowded with vacationers and children.
I could only brake as hard as possible. Smoke swirled from the back tires, but the distance between me and the turning car was closing. Impact was imminent.
My father spent his career in the trucking industry and a part of that job involved investigating accidents involving big rigs. The calls meant hours away from family, so, sometimes, he would let one of us kids join him. The purpose of our company, he claimed, to keep him company on the drive down and back. In hindsight, I think it was more about one of his many ways to teach us important things about life. Telling someone is never as effective as showing. And an accident involving a large truck is a quite effective show and tell.
One accident stands out in my memory. A man had left his home for a quick errand. Three blocks from his house, he ran a stop sign and pulled on to a highway much like the one I was traveling. He never saw, heard, or felt the impact as the semi plowed into his driver’s door. But the sound of the crash carried to his house. It brought his widow running.
We arrived four hours after the crash. Like many accidents involving 80,000 pound trucks, the carnage was still being cleared even that much later. They had just recovered the body before we got there, a scene I mercifully avoided.
But I did see why it took so long. The car was an unrecognizable mass of metal wrapped around the front tires and axle of the truck. I watched as the recovery crews unwrapped pieces of metal and stowed them on a flat bed wrecker. Sometimes, I identified the metal as a door frame or a fender. Other times, it was just unrecognizable, twisted debris.
The truck driver had somehow kept the truck upright and on the road though he skidded a football field away from the intersection before stopping.
The accident investigation cleared the driver. He was not speeding nor impaired. His truck was in perfect operational condition.
The car was simply no match for the power of a loaded truck.
As we screeched toward contact, many thoughts raced through my mind.
Was the driver in the car in front of me alone? Or was his family there?
Had he known he was going to this gas station and was too impatient to turn behind me? Or was it a last second decision to swerve in front of me?
Were my own passengers going to be ok?
Where would his car end up? Would it crash into one of the gas pumps? Or plow into the convenience store? Or hit an innocent person walking across from the gas pumps?
And why oh why didn’t he turn real quick and get out of my way? Couldn’t he hear my horn blaring? My tires squealing?
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conducts several studies including stopping distances. The time to stop a vehicle is segmented into two components – thinking time and braking time.
Thinking time is the time for your brain to see a situation and decide to stop. For the average driver that is about 1.5 seconds. At 55 miles per hour, you will travel 121 feet making that decision before you ever apply the brake.
Thinking time is impacted by several factors. A person who has been drinking alcohol or taking drugs takes longer to make that decision, a key reason that driving under the influence is so dangerous.
A truck or RV driver can see further down the road because they sit higher, allowing the driver to react faster to a situation. And a driver trained in defensive driving can spot danger faster.
Here, the car in front of me had a huge advantage – he decided to turn into that gas station before I realized his plan. My defensive driving training allowed me to anticipate his move. Could my advantage offset his advantage? Or was my reaction too slow.
Skidding. Skidding. That rear bumper getting closer and closer.
Turn, damn it, just turn. I can’t stop.
Once the driver applies the brakes, the average family car traveling at 55 mph stops in less than 200 feet. The average loaded tractor trailer, even though it has a much more powerful braking system, takes 300 feet. Thus, the trucker needs at least an additional 100 feet between his truck and your car in order to avoid a collision. Cutting in front of a truck removes that safety barrier.
My RV, weighing less than half of a tractor trailer but still over 10 times the passenger car in front of me, needed more distance than the car driver gave me.
I had good equipment on my side. The tires were in excellent shape, the tread strong. My brakes were well-maintained. The Toad (the nickname for a towed vehicle behind the RV) had its on braking system, keeping that car straight in line behind the RV and not adding extra stress to the RV’s brakes. Too many RVers opt not to invest in the additional braking for their Toads, but my father’s lessons of traffic safety are too clear in my brain.
Is my investment in strong safety equipment paying off now?
The gap between us was closing.
Was he turning? Maybe. Looks like it. But he hesitated. Did he panic? Did he freeze?
The RV’s speed was dropping, but the distance was closing faster. Mere feet away.
And then only inches.
I braced for impact.
It happens often on the highways. Someone in a car thinking they can’t wait the few seconds behind a truck, so they will just cut in front of them. Highway on-ramps and off-ramps are nightmares for truckers as cars cut in front, racing to make the next appointment or soccer practice or dinner at home. Each time, they are placing their lives in the hands of that trucker. Is his equipment maintained? Is he well trained? Can he keep 80,000 pounds from crunching your car?
But I have in my head that image of a car wrapped around the front axle being peeled away part by part. The trucker did everything right. The truck was in great condition. But it wasn’t enough. He did not have time to stop.
And his widow heard the impact while sitting in her house three blocks away.
All because the auto driver was in too much of a hurry.
Those few seconds don’t matter to him anymore. Did they matter to the guy in front of me?
I watched the back bumper get closer and then disappear from view, hidden below my front bumper. I waited for the sound of crunching metal and breaking glass.
But it never came.
At the last second – last millisecond – the driver turned. I skidded by him.
We missed by inches.
I have a new memory seared in my brain. The accident that didn’t happen.
And, days later, I am still shaken by it.