I spend a lot of time in the car. At age 23, I have a lot of friends who are still in college, many of them at schools scattered around the country. In the past year or so, I’ve taken road trips to St. Louis, Indiana, various parts of Michigan, to a wedding in Ohio, and to wineries in the hills of Missouri. I call Chicago home but went to school in Texas, and I frequently made the 1,004-mile drive back and forth, back and forth. I am an incredibly comfortable driver, I have dozens of Spotify playlists to keep me occupied, and I know gas station snacks like the back of my hand.
I didn’t blink an eye when I scheduled a trip to see my old college roommate Jessie at her lake house in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. She took more time off of work than I did, so we drove up separately. My trip was planned from Sunday morning to Tuesday evening, and I felt confident making the six-hour journey on my own.
On Sunday, July 8, around 12:45 pm, I was on a back road in northern Wisconsin. It was an up-north kind of highway, with two lanes going in each direction and a smattering of gas stations and diners every couple dozen miles. I knew fuel options would become even more scarce the farther north I went, so I decided to stop to fill up before the situation became dire. I turned on my blinker to turn left into a gas station, made a complete stop, and waited for the traffic to clear going the other way. Before I even had time to look in my rearview mirror, a small speeding SUV slammed into the back of my car, effectively smashing the rear of my car and propelling me about 50 yards forward.
That was the first car accident I’ve ever been in. Thankfully, I and the other driver are both alive and relatively unhurt — but had a few things been different, that might not have been the case. As the subsequent events and necessary procedures unfolded, I learned a lot. I learned information both practical and emotional, and I’m here today to share it all with you. As much as I hope no one else ever has to go through this ordeal, it’s important to know a few things in case you ever do.
1. Shock is a very real thing.
Immediately after impact, a nearby policer officer who heard the accident happen sped over in his car. He was at the scene in under a minute, and emergency response was on its way within a few more. The police officer came over to talk to me, and I was physically unable to say more than a word or two at a time. The other passenger had more visible injuries than I did, so he attended to her and left me alone to wait. For the next fifteen minutes, I simply sat. It did not occur to me to make any texts or phone calls, to get out of the car, or to ask any questions. At no point did I think, “I should just sit here quietly.” I just did it. In silence. In my very smashed car, my turn signal still blinking and clicking.
In hindsight, that was super weird behavior. I’m incredibly dramatic, known to raise the alarm for something as small as a paper cut; so for me to simply sit in a quiet car was abnormal. I should have registered that my body was reacting to trauma, but I didn’t — simply because I had never experienced it before.
Important: Symptoms and severity of shock can vary, but it’s important to note that your behavior may change immediately after a stressful situation. When you’re in shock, your body cannot register pain. Your adrenaline is pumping, so your body is unaware of its actual physical state. This brings me to my next point, one even more important than the first.
2. At the very least, you should definitely get checked out by paramedics.
On impact, my body did a few things. My neck snapped forward, my head smacked the front left side of the car (right about where the window meets the roof), and my bent knees slammed into the under layer of the dashboard, right under the steering wheel. I was very lucky. My immediate pain was minimal, and I suffered no serious injuries.
When the paramedics arrived on the scene, they asked me what hurt and how bad, and they told me they were there to give me a full body check for more damage. I refused. THAT WAS DUMB. Hear me say this again: when your body is in shock, it often cannot register pain. I was not yet cognitively aware of the force of the accident, so I adamantly refused a check-up. I have the legal right to do so, so the paramedics did not press the issue. I didn’t see a doctor until Wednesday, three full days after the accident. In hindsight, that was a terrible decision. My doctor told me I probably had a concussion, and I was also sent for 11 x-rays and a visit to my chiropractor.
While I was lucky to have not sustained any serious injuries, the risk is too great. In my opinion, you should always accept medical assistance when it is offered. A shocked mind cannot fully comprehend the damage an accident may have caused. Be aware that your body may know more than your brain does.
3. Know your rights, your insurance policy, and your own situation.
A few logistical items:
- Police officers must have a warrant before they can search your phone. The accident was not my fault, but had it been, they might have asked to see my phone. It’s your right to demand a warrant first.
- You have the right to deny medical care. If you think you’re fine, you have the right to not be touched or checked. You also, however, have the right to change your mind and ask for medical care once your shock is reduced (while still on the scene).
- Everyone’s insurance policy is different. Even if you’re still on your parents’ insurance (as I am), it’s still important to know your policy number, insurance company, if you have roadside assistance, etc. Have a chat with your primary insurance holder to get to know the basics. If it’s your own insurance, make sure you speak to your employer or insurance agent to know what to do in a new situation.
- When driving, you should always have your driver’s license, medical insurance card, and auto insurance card. If you’re in an accident, they will likely ask for the first and third of those items, and they will need all three should you be seriously injured.
- If you’re not seriously injured or in immediate danger in your car (like if it’s on fire, you smell smoke, or something is leaking), stay in your car. Passing traffic only serves as a further danger.
- Have emergency contacts listed in your phone. Save them as Favorites, or put “ICE” next to their contact name.
4. Until you are physically making a turn, your wheels should be pointing straight ahead.
You make left turns all the time. Thanks to muscle memory, we barely even register the motions as we flip our turn signal, step on the break, and turn our wheel. However, more often than with right turns, left turns are often made after a yield. You yield to oncoming traffic, to check both ways, to wait for a light to change, etc. Because we are so often in a hurry, we speed up this process by sitting, waiting to turn, with our wheels turned to the left, ready to go quickly. DON’T DO THAT. Again, I was lucky. By no purposeful reasoning, I happened to keep my wheels pointing straight ahead, not yet having begun the wheel-turning process. Because of this, when my car was pushed forward, it only went straight ahead — as opposed to into oncoming opposite-direction traffic. If my wheels had been turned, according to the police officers and paramedics, I would not be sitting here writing this today.
5. Texting and driving is STUPID, and there is no excuse good enough to justify it.
The woman who hit me was a lot like me. She’s 24, she’s from the midwest, and she was on her way to spend her Sunday afternoon hiking a local trail. I have no idea what she was doing when she hit me, but chances are good that she had been texting (or doing something else on her phone).
Don’t text. Don’t check your email. Don’t check your Instagram notifications. Don’t scroll through Twitter. Don’t FaceTime. Don’t read typed-out directions. Don’t pick a Spotify playlist. Don’t search YouTube. Don’t take a selfie. Don’t send a Snap video of yourself singing Celine Dion.
Most people have done one (if not all) of those things, but none of them is worth the price of your life, or the price of the innocent lives in a car you could hit. I will probably never speak to the woman in that other car, but I feel confident that if I did, she would tell me that whatever she had been doing was not worth her totaled car or her broken pelvis (Yeah, she never made it on that hike.).
6. You should never be afraid to ask for help.
If you’re anything like I am, it’s hard for you to admit that you can’t do everything alone. That is something I have always struggled with. However, when you’re stuck in the middle of Nowheresville, Wisconsin, without a car but with a searing pain in your neck, you’re not given many options. It was hard for me to accept that the only thing I could do was sit and wait — for my dear friend Jessie to come pick me up (Jess, you drove two and a half hours to come get me, and I can never thank you enough. You are the best friend.), for my mom to call our insurance company, for the tow truck company to come, for the policemen to give me more details. It sucked. I felt completely helpless, and I was so worried that everyone was mad at me.
It’s so important to trust the people who love and care about you. When something scary happens to you, you have to allow people to help you. Relationships are the absolute best part of life, and one of the reasons we get to have them is to help us when we are experiencing times of need. So when your mom calls the police department so she can basically send a thank you basket to the officer who helped you (true story), don’t get mad. Be grateful that you have people who are willing to help you, then do the same when the situation is reversed.
7. Life is a beautiful gift.
The day I got in a car accident sucked. And frankly, many days since have sucked too — I’ve been in a lot of pain, I was without a car for awhile, I was stranded in Wisconsin, my workout routine is on hold for awhile, I get irrationally nervous making left turns, and I have trouble falling asleep. But it could have been SO. MUCH. WORSE.
I’m so thankful to be sitting here writing this, and I’m so thankful that I have a supportive and helpful family, good insurance, and intelligent doctors. But most of all, I’m thankful to be alive. I think my car accident was sent as a message: a message telling me to slow down, to relax, and to appreciate my life.
Hug your family, kiss your husband, and call your grandparents. We are so fortunate to be living and breathing, experiencing the hot summer days and the rainy afternoons. Stop and smell the flowers, appreciate how good that bite of pizza tastes, and pour the extra glass of wine. Life’s too short to do anything but.