Over the weekend, I had a near-miss while driving that was harrowing and close enough that it’s been lingering in my head since it happened. I was very nearly in a head-on collision with a huge SUV in my Nissan Pao, a situation that could have ended very, very badly for me. I’m okay, danger was averted, but the incident has made me think about how we talk about car safety, and an important element of driving safety that I think remains under-appreciated.
Here’s what happened: I was driving back with my nine-year-old son from a local lake, where we went to get the hell out of the house for a bit and see if we could explore a bit in this little boat scrapyard that we’ve been to before.
Part of the way back is on this two-lane, bi-directional road across the lake, a sort of narrow causeway. Just to give you a sense of the scene, I think it was somewhere around here, as seen on Google Maps:
That’s water on either side, and the road itself has a narrow, grassy shoulder bordering it, maybe almost as wide as a normal lane before the brush gets thick and the terrain gets hilly. In the picture up there, I was driving on the right side, heading, um, up.
So, I’m driving home in my little Pao, Otto’s in the back seat, we’re doing about, oh, 50 mph or so, and there’s some traffic, as many people seem to have decided to go for a lovely day’s drive by some water.
We’re tooling happily along when I crest a slight rise in the road and see, about 8 to 10 car lengths ahead of me, a big, white GM SUV in my lane, heading right at me.
I let off the throttle, thinking that this SUV was passing someone and, now that they can see there’s a car in the lane heading at them, will do what any rational person would do, and prepare to get back into their proper lane as soon as possible.
But that’s not what happened. I was waiting to see the SUV’s turn signal flash on, indicating that the driver had some fundamental understanding of the rules of driving and the consequences of physics, but the only flashing lights I saw were the SUV’s high beams, blinking on and off, and the SUV continued in the wrong lane, picking up speed.
All of the following happened likely in the space of a few seconds, but the adrenaline affect on the brain or whatever happens in situations of intense focus made everything seem much slower and all the details seared into my memory.
I realized that this idiot seemed to be committed to their plan of barreling ahead like a crazed juggernaut, attempting to somehow pass at least one additional car before they’d be willing to give up driving into oncoming traffic, which was, at the time, me.
I remember seeing those high beams flashing at me and thinking, yes, fucko, of course I can see you—that’s not the problem here. You’re in the wrong lane, idiot, and unless you think those high beams can somehow act as teleporters to move my ass out of the way, I don’t see what you’re trying to accomplish by flashing them at me while not leaving the fucking lane.
I remember looking in the rear view to see how close the car was there, to know if slamming on my brakes would help at all, but there was a car right behind me, a Mustang with one of those hoods with the comically huge bulges in it, and I could tell if I tried to slow down too fast, that big hood would end up right up my ass.
The white SUV was still in my lane, heading at me, blinking those stupid lights.
What the fuck was this moron trying to do? Why were they still trying to pass when anyone with the cognitive ability of a well-crafted hoagie could see that doing so would be a terrible, terrible idea? I’m not even sure the lanes were marked to legally pass at this point, even.
I didn’t really have anywhere to go, and I could see that the SUV, now like two car lengths away from me, would very soon be occupying the same volume of space as the Pao, which would not end well for me or my kid at all.
Since the Pao is right -hand drive, I was able to glance sideways and see the grassy shoulder was empty and thankfully looked big enough to fit in, so I ditched into the grass just as the SUV plowed right through where I just was, and I recall watching it pass through passenger’s side window on the left.
I assume it then got back into its proper lane, having completed its idiotic and useless pass, but I didn’t look back. I got out of the grass and back on the road, said a lot of profanity that delighted my kid, and drove home in that slightly disconnected state that happens after a near-miss like this.
I’m telling you all this partially to just vent about that fucking moron in the SUV, and partially because it made me realize that the way we think about what makes a “safe” car is only half right.
Had we actually been in a head-on collision, that 5,000 pound Tahoe or whatever it was would have absolutely mulched my 1,800 pound Pao. Sure, the SUV would have sustained a lot of damage, but with all the airbags and the mass advantage, it’s likely the people inside would have survived relatively unharmed, while I’d be either dead or a voice talking out of the air cleaner housing, and I’m not sure I even want to think what could have happened to Otto, my kid, belted in that back seat.
I know many people would think well, that’s the risk of driving an old, unsafe car, and, sure, they’re absolutely right. Modern cars are incredibly safe, and every advancement made to make them safer is absolutely fantastic, and I wouldn’t change a thing.
But, that’s not really all of what’s important about automotive safety; there’s an inherent advantage in driving an unsafe car, one that has the potential to prevent situations like the one I was just in.
You see, there are really two different ways a car can be safe. You could call it selfish and altruistic safety, or, if we want to be less judgmental pricks, maybe internal and external safety.
That SUV, for example, has exemplary internal safety; in an accident, everyone inside is extremely well-protected, which is wonderful.
But that big SUV also does an awful lot to insulate the people inside from the reality of the world. I’ve driven plenty of modern SUVs, and I understand what they’re like: comfortable, quiet, roomy, tall cocoons, and when you’re in them, barreling along at 80 mph, you feel like you’re in a leather-slathered living room, and not at all like you’re hurtling down an asphalt ribbon at more than a mile-a-minute.
That’s why cars like that have terrible external safety. The only reason anyone would pull a stupid attempted overtaking move like the one that I encountered is because, inside the car, it just doesn’t feel like that big a deal. The person driving that SUV clearly saw me ahead as they drove into oncoming traffic, but instead of attempting to get out of the way, they doubled down, and kept on going, even though they clearly saw a car heading right at them.
That’s not the kind of shit you pull in an old, unsafe car.
When you’re driving a featherweight little box with zero airbags, you’re simply not going to try and pull a moronic maneuver like that because you can actually feel what’s going on. You’re not insulated from the fact that you’re in a little glass-and-steel box whipping around, and you can sense the danger of what’s going on, you can feel the whip of wind as bigger vehicles pass you, you can feel the slope of the road, you can hear the air rush by—you’re there, driving, and not in an insulated room that just happens to be moving along on the road.
Which means, for all of the people I know who drive old, unsafe cars, they simply do not do things like driving right at someone in the wrong lane, because they’re always aware of the consequences.
So, with this in mind, the two vehicles that thankfully didn’t meet—my Pao and that SUV—are the exact opposite, safety wise. My Pao has terrible internal safety but excellent external safety, and that SUV has excellent internal safety but miserable external.
My Pao is small and light and not much of a threat to the people outside of it; visibility is good, it’s nimble, and if you had to pick a car to run into you, it’d be near the top of anyone’s list.
A big-ass modern SUV, though, is a terrible beast to interact with in highly kinetic ways. It’s big, cumbersome, and terribly heavy. The high bumper height can wreak havoc on lower cars. It’s a menace.
I’m not suggesting that we ban anything or make everyone drive around in the sort of flimsy deathtraps that I gravitate to—not at all. I believe cars need to be as safe as we can possibly build them.
But I am saying that maybe we should consider both kinds of safety for cars—safe for the people inside and the people outside. I know with things like pedestrian safety and blunter front ends and cushiony engine covers we’re headed that way, and that’s great.
But I’m tired of taking all the judgmental looks and self-satisfied bullshit of people who are quick to condemn my cars as deathtraps our act horrified when they see me with my kid in them. I’m not saying those people are wrong, and sure, there are ways that my cars are deathtraps.
But I think there’s an argument that massive modern SUVs and similar cars can be deathtraps, too, just with that death facing out, instead of in. Neither is a good thing, as you’d expect with anything you’d describe as a “deathtrap,” but it may be time to pay as much attention to the outer deathtrap problem as we’ve paid to the inner one.