Last weekend on the A34 I was involved in a car accident. There are about 200,000 car accidents each year in the UK and I’m not claiming this one was exceptional. The circumstances were right out of the textbook. A car ahead in my lane had a puncture. With no hard shoulder or free lane available to overtake I had to brake hard to avoid hitting it. I stopped just in time. Unfortunately there was a car behind me which probably had a bit less time to react than I had had. This wasn’t quite enough; and so, about ten seconds later, it ploughed into the back of me.
The last time I was in a car accident I was seven. Cars in those days were rigid metal boxes with wheels. My dad skidded and drove into a tree at no more than 20mph. The engine burst through into the passenger compartment, just where my legs would have been had I not been thrown through the windscreen – no seat belts in those days, perhaps fortunately.
This time, the car crumpled like a plastic cup. I and the other driver got out and faced each other. This is always a tense moment. People, men perhaps in particular, can go odd when their car’s been pranged. A burst of self-righteous rage might seem justified, even necessary, to let off steam and establish legal high-ground. Darker forces can also be unleashed. Hard words on a hard shoulder (not that there was a hard shoulder, which was what had caused the accident) can turn to violence. As the injured party, it was up to me to set the tone. What was it to be? The other driver didn’t know. Nor at first did I. Anything might have happened.
I have no interest in cars and only own one because I have to get around. Once it was clear my sons were shaken but not harmed my main irritation was that I’d only recently gone through the tedium of buying this car and would probably have to do so again with another. After I’d got that off my chest we were all very restrained: in fact it was all so damned civil that anyone looking at a photo of us might have thought we were chatting at a cocktail party. His car was a Landrover, a great big thing. There was some water underneath it but we couldn’t decide if this was a leaking radiator or a puddle. There was no other obvious damage. I assured them (wrongly as events were to prove) that they’d be much safer somewhere else and they drove off. I, my sons and the woman with the puncture were left in a biting wind making all the fraught phone calls which the situation demanded. This occupied most of the two hours until the recovery vehicles arrived.
One common result of a car accident is whiplash. Few things are worse for whiplash than having to spend most of the next day or so with a telephone glued to your ear; yet that is exactly what someone who’s just had their car written off needs to do. Each conversation now lasts three times longer than it used to as each insurance company, car-hire firm, legal advisor and all the rest of them must read out the terms and conditions of every part of each discussion. This is done in a flat, almost sinister, monotone which strips away any meaning the phrases might once have had and reduces the caller to a state half way between mental paralysis and confused rage. There was soon no comfortable way of holding the phone.
I learned that this policy of recitation was introduced about 15 years ago by the then boss of the FSA. I cursed the FSA several times during the long pauses. Judge then of my surprise when I realised, after a quick Google search, that the person who at that time had been in charge of the FSA was none other than the man who’d ploughed into the back of me.
At one point I needed to call him. I restrained the temptation to mention this irony. It was hard to see what he was going to be able to do about it now and it would only complicate the simple and functional exchange we needed to have. In fact, the phone conversation revealed something much more surprising and provided another irony that was even more immediate.
He was out but his wife answered. I asked my questions and confirmed the insurance details and then chatted about the incident, as one does. She said this was the first accident he’d had in over 40 years of driving. I said I hoped it wouldn’t be the start of a trend. Too late, she told me. Not long after they’d left us almost exactly the same thing had happened, but this time with someone ploughing into the back of them.
I laughed, but only because the symmetry was so neat. Fortune’s wheel really can spin quickly at times. I asked what happened to the other car. She said it was pretty smashed up, probably written off. And theirs? Once again, no damage to speak of.
The superficial moral of the story might be ‘buy a Landrover’, or else a Sherman tank. It might also stand as a metaphor for the banking crisis (I should add that the man was currently a banker): the bigger you are, the less likely you are to get hurt. God is, we are often told, on the side of the big battalions.
There is, I feel, also a wider point to draw from all of this.
I used to reject the general idea that a good deed is worth doing, or a bad one avoiding, unless there was an instant result. My life in London obliterated any sense that I was connected to the rest of humanity other than to the minute percentage I knew. Morality had to be regarded purely as its own reward. Each tube journey presented a totally new group of people I would never see again. It was almost as if they didn’t exist and so it was hard to see how any dealings I had with them would have any but the most immediate consequences. Living in a village, as I now do, changes this totally. The person you see today you’ll probably see again tomorrow and next week so you’d better be nice to them, and them to you.
My lovely wife Penny (yes, that’s right, I’m her husband – you don’t think this stuff I write gets published on merit, do you?) has always believed in a very positive form of the ‘what goes round comes round’ theory of life, even attempting to apply this to her dealings with neighbours when she was living in New York in the ‘90s. Most of them didn’t quite get the hang of it. Penny Post is this philosophy communicated once a week in a newsletter and kept up to date on a website. I’m lucky enough to live with it all the time.
The day before this accident I heard a story on the radio that illustrated the wheel of fortune turning in just this direction. A young woman in a computer shop was, shortly before closing time, asked to deal with a female customer who was thought to be difficult – in fact, she was just tired and stressed and late. She calmly and politely sorted out what the customer needed and received gushing thanks. A few days later the young woman had an interview for a high-powered sales position: her interviewer turned out to be (you’ve seen this coming, haven’t you?) the woman she’d helped in the shop. Despite there being better qualified candidates, on the strength of their fortuitous encounter, she got the job.
Of course, like those other mind-boggling co-incidences you sometimes hear of, this kind of thing rarely happens. Most of the time our good deeds go unrewarded and our bad ones unpunished: yet they build up inside us and change the way we are, the way others see us and the way we expect the world to work. Since living with Penny I’ve been more inclined to do a good deed for its own sake; I hope I’ve always been quite good about avoiding bad ones. Those of you who know me may disagree with both propositions.
It certainly seems worth trying to act at all times as if your actions will catch up with you. As these two stories indicate, this can work both ways and sometimes a lot sooner than you think. The cynic in me (never far from the surface) asks me to add that if retribution is likely to come in the form of a rear-end collision you might also want to make sure you’re driving a sturdy car at the time.
The image at the top of the article was taken from the website of Bryan Musgrave, attorneys based in Missouri. I have no personal knowledge of their work but if you’re ever in trouble in that state, you might want to get in touch with them.