A Crash Course in Humility

How do you react when you are out driving and notice that a nearby motorist is driving a very beat-up car? Not a well-used or old vehicle, but one that has clearly been in a serious crash?

I have to admit that my first instinct has always been to keep as far away from them as possible, because maybe the disfiguring disease will drift back to my car like an airborne virus. Or I’ll assume the driver is careless, another reason to keep at least 18 car lengths away. Either way, the sight of a caved-in bumper, a crumpled headlight or a beleaguered motorist standing next to a roadside wreck makes me both uncomfortable and grateful. Car wrecks happen only to other people, either through carelessness or bad luck. Until it happens to you.

A few Sundays ago I was taking our son out for his first driving lesson. It was an empty parking lot near our home, next to an office building. John, his learner’s permit recently won, was eager to start driving. His older brothers had volunteered to teach him the road skills, but I felt confident that I could at least teach him the basics of our 10-year-old Acura, whose handling I knew so well. I had done the same for our older kids, using an old Sentra with a sluggish four-cylinder engine and a wheel that required serious arm muscles to turn. I had warm memories of those times, and had no reason to think this would be different.

Feeling buoyant rather than apprehensive, I went over the safety precautions first and explored the seat belts, gas pedal, brake and turn signals. We adjusted the seating and the mirrors. We turned the key, and John gingerly stepped on the gas, then the brake, then the gas. His movements were tentative; the car responded overeagerly, but he seemed to get the hang of it. After a few minutes we felt confident enough to attempt a turn, and that’s when we got into trouble. We learned too late that the very handling that made the Acura a pleasure to drive for an experienced driver made it too skittish for an inexperienced one. John’s touch on the wheel was too much; the car swerved too far to the left and moved too quickly. John was paralyzed with fear and I didn’t react in time. We plowed into a wall that had looked comfortably far away just a few seconds earlier.

Luckily, neither of us was hurt, and the wall was OK. But the front driver’s side of the car now looked like the Elephant Man. After several minutes consoling John, I drove it home. Luckily the car drove as smoothly as it did before.

The verdict was grim: no interior damage but some pretty extreme plastic surgery. A new bumper and fender, new $700 head lamp, new radiator support. One body shop, affiliated with an Acura dealership, quoted us $6,000 to do the work, more than two-thirds the value of the car. We were hoping that we could avoid going through insurance, but this didn’t look good.

“Hey, this is going back to a young driver,” I pointed out. “Can you just make it safe and cut corners somewhere to save money? It doesn’t have to be perfect.” The guy at the high-end dealer – who no doubt was used to pumping up the price and figuring insurance would pay for it – acted insulted and said that everything he was proposing was absolutely necessary.

So I left the car there and told him I’d think about it, then canvassed friends for other recommendations. I found another place that many said was worth checking out. So I fetched my car from the high-end shop and drove it there. The car still ran like a champ, but it attracted more than its fair share of somber glances from other motorists and pedestrians. What were they thinking of me? I wondered. Did they assume I was a bad driver, or careless, or unlucky? Did the drivers apply their brakes to add a little more distance between us?

Wish I could have told them that I’m a good driver, and I’m cautious. I’ve only had one accident that has been my fault, nobody was hurt, and it was 14 years ago. But I just learned two humbling lessons: one, you don’t put a responsive, high-horsepower piece of machinery in the hands of a new driver, even in a parking lot, and two, I don’t have the reflexes to be a driving instructor.

A happy postscript: the nice guy at that other body shop is doing the work for way less than half, and he even gave me a ride home. And John’s next driving experience will be with a licensed driving teacher in a car with two sets of controls.

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