Prairie Lights: In accident’s wake, reflections on luck, fate

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Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Oh, deer.

Like most people who write for a living, I sometimes resort to the use of clichéd expressions.

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to make use of “deer in the headlights” again. The idiom will always remind me unpleasantly of the actual experience of having a deer directly in my headlights and then crumpling the hood of my car and causing both airbags to deploy.

Speaking of clichés, I think my first reaction was to utter a very bad word in a very loud voice. My next reaction, upon seeing the smoke curling out of what was left of the passenger-side airbag, was to urge my brother—using that same word—to get out of the car.

In that intense moment, I could only remember having received a recall notice for the passenger-side airbag. For all I knew, it was about to burst into flames. Later, when I had calmed down, I remembered that the danger involved flying shrapnel from the airbag deployment, and of course that danger had already passed.

But it’s probably foolish to try establishing a chronology of what I might have said or thought. I have never had so many thoughts and impressions crowding my mind in so short a time.

All of this, as far as I know, took place in what seemed like a single second: There was a brown blur in my peripheral vision, then a terrified eyeball visible just over the hood, a terrific impact, an airbag in my face, a deflated airbag virtually in my lap. For a fraction of that second, never having dealt with an airbag before, I thought the bag in my face was the deer.

I was angry at the deer when it seemed like it was intent on killing me. But a minute later, after I had determined that my only injury was a small burn-bruise on my left wrist, I walked over to see the deer lying dead just off the shoulder of Interstate 90 (15 miles east of Big Timber), and I felt a great sadness.

After that long winter, it must have been a fine, wet spring to be a deer. The deer I hit clearly hadn’t figured out a dependable way of dealing with creatures who hurl down the prairie at 80 mph, wrapped in steel and plastic.

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So the deer was dead, as was our Forester (soon confirmed by an insurance adjustor), and my brother’s only injury was a bruised fingertip.

Six days before that accident, also driving east on I-90, trying to open a small packet of chocolate with my teeth, I lost a chunk of my front tooth, part of a four-tooth bridge installed more than 30 years ago in the wake of a collision with a hockey stick.

In less than a week, I was driving another Forester, this one older than its predecessor but with fewer miles on the odometer. And I will be going in soon to have my bridge replaced.

It all involves a frightful lot of money, by our standards, but thanks to insurance coverage and a retirement account I accumulated during 25 years as a wage slave, we came away from the double wallop in relatively good shape.

I couldn’t help but think of those for whom such accidents would be a major disaster. I thought of all the people who wouldn’t have been insured, who couldn’t have afforded another car, and of all the consequences of that. That single instant, that single deer, could have derailed their lives for months, or years or forever.

And what if the deer had come through the windshield of someone with no health insurance? If the driver lived through it, there could have been a long hospital stay, after an emergency room visit, followed perhaps by a permanent disability. By the same token, that $5,000 chocolate bar, which is what I’ll end up paying for it, might have meant a lifetime of bad teeth, further dental troubles, endless inconvenience.

I know some will ask why we should reward people too lazy to find a good job with insurance, or too thoughtless to provide for their own future. I would ask why we should punish someone for an accident of fate.

There is also the question of personal responsibility. In my own case, all this dental work I have had and will now need stemmed from my original decision not to invest in and use a buck-fifty mouth guard. And maybe I should have been driving 65 mph instead of 80 mph when I hit that deer. My decisions will ultimately cost the other members of my insurance pool.

And what of all those healthy young people who don’t believe they should be forced to buy health insurance, and wouldn’t have to under either the House or Senate proposals to not quite repeal or replace Obamacare? Good health does not protect one from accidents of fate.

For people who are healthy and young, and for people who are barely scraping by, it’s all too easy to forego health-care coverage. It’s hard to plan for the future if you feel immortal, or if the future extends only so far as coming up with next month’s rent.

I have been thinking a lot in the past couple of weeks how fortunate I am to live in a time and place when you can slam into a deer dead-on at 80 mph and walk away with a slight bruise. Technology, innovation, safety rules—they all combined to protect and preserve my heedless, lucky self.

We should all be so lucky.

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