Three crashes, one year, and many lessons on old cars and drivers

October 5, 2012

They say the third time is a charm. But having just been rear-ended last month for the third time in little more than a year -- after a lifetime without such accidents -- I must report that there's nothing charming about it. Which is not to say all my crashes weren't learning experiences. I am fortunate that I get so many chances to say it could've been worse.

ACCIDENT NO. 1: Rt. 9, Tarrytown, N.Y., dusk

He was going thirty while I, setting out through a newly minted green light in rush hour traffic, had just hit 10 miles an hour. By the time the idiot in the Honda Civic explained that he had dropped a quarter and was in the process of looking for it when he rammed squarely into the back of the Chevy Cruze Eco I was driving, the headrests had already protected our necks and a GM OnStar advisor had already called to see if we were OK. Happily, we were. Though my brain felt scrambled the headache subsided within a day.

The Cruze emerged from the shunt fully drivable and only slightly worse for wear; a little freshening of the rear bumper would be required and a look at the car's electrical system would not go amiss (a few warning lights wouldn't go out,) but, like me and my family, it was still up and running.

On the other hand, the 2004 Civic was airbags- deployed, hood-folded, comprehensively crumpled and crumbled. It had turned its wheels under its own steam for the last time. No injuries, though, except hurt pride.

For regarding the guy who hit us — just beginning a maiden date with an older woman he'd met online — it had quickly become back to time. As first impressions go, the one he'd served up was truly memorable, but not in a good way.

Takeaway No. 1: Look out for what's ahead, folks.

Being a committed operator of old cars, I remember thinking the first time I got hit from the rear, how fortunate I was to have been driving a modern test car, rather than something antique, such as what I often drive. Both from a safety perspective and the selfish one that makes me hate to have my things — especially the good stuff — ruined, I'll crash a new car every time.

But somehow I'd managed to make it through a lifetime of driving without having ever been rear-ended prior to the Cruze incident. And if this was going to be my only brush with this most unexpected variety of accident, so be it.

ACCIDENT No. 2: I-87 W/Tappan Zee Bridge (Hudson River, near Tarrytown, N.Y.), 10pm

Whoops, spoke too soon. My relative good fortune was short-lived.

Indeed, things were quite a bit more upsetting when I got hit from behind last winter by a Japanese-made, cab-over box truck, while driving on New York's Tappan Zee Bridge one evening at roughly 40 miles per hour. Problem was, white-cube man behind me was driving 65 and not looking where he was going. And this time I was driving an old car — a 1966 Lancia Fulvia Coupe, my favorite among many I own. As straight and original an example as any I've ever seen, I'd pursued it for five years before buying it in 1995, then treated it to a sympathetic restoration before putting another 17,000 miles on it. It was, as Road & Track might have once said, highly roadworthy.

"Was" is the operative term, because within seconds my 46-year-old dream ride had been rocket-sledded into the bridge's concrete central divider, scraping hard along it for 100 yards or more before I could recover and make it to the right lane, which was doubling scarily as a breakdown lane (no shoulder) with three accident aftermaths in progress at that very moment. As we locals in Rockland County, NY, know too well, the Tappan Zee has been positively identified as the tarmac-ed cousin of the Bermuda Triangle.

Jumping from my now crushed car, my passenger and I could see the ruptured gas tank puking its petrochemical contents all over the road, along with the horrific vision of the Fulvia's dainty, stainless steel rear bumper mangled and hard up against the back seat. Injuries were minor — two of my fingers cut by the Fulvia steering wheel's spokes, my friend completely OK — but my beloved Lancia was totaled. Looking up, we saw the truck that had hit us speeding away. When we asked them, the police were like, What's the point?

Given that we could have been killed, it was easy to see the bright side, but it was deeply shocking nonetheless. The sadness over an automotive friend lost, after so many happy years together, promises to linger.

Takeaway No. 2: Look out for what's behind; it might be gaining on you.

ACCIDENT No. 3: County Road, Tenafly, N.J., sunny day, 10:45 am

After the Fulvia, my next favorite old car has to be my 1962 MGA 1600 Mk.II. My parents had an MGA when I was born, I cut my automotive teeth on them in high school when I restored two, and have tried when possible to own one ever since. I've always loved MGAs, and my current example, bought in 2002 -- an original paint, original interior car with a documented 26,000 miles — is about as good as they get. But then, boom.

There are many things for older drivers and their families to be concerned about beyond diminished faculties, including the tendency for today's old timers to be take vast quantities of prescription and over-the-counter medicines. So acute is the problem, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has developed a web-based program, Roadwise Rx, to act as a central repository for a person's prescription and over-the-counter medication information, one that will catalog for participants possible side effects of the drugs they're using -- including the worrisome interactions that may occur with the particular medications they are taking — which may impair their driving ability.

1962 MGA, meet 2009 Subaru Forester, the one that got pranged from behind last month while I was stopped at a red light in broad daylight. At first, the Subaru driver, a woman in her late 80s, insisted that she hadn't hit my car. Within seconds, however, it became clear that what she meant to say was that she hadn't noticed hitting it.

As she watched me picking bits of MGA taillight lens out of the Forester's grille, she did allow as she'd been leaning over looking for her purse when she stopped moving.

I would've screamed at her. But I'd long since depressingly realized my assailant was an elderly woman so old and out of it, she probably wouldn't hear me, even if I kept on screaming for hours. I'm pretty sure she caught the drift of my opening remarks, made before I clocked her seniority. At any rate, she asked me at one point not to arrest her.

Of course, anyone who was looking for a purse could rear-end someone. The young hardly have the patent on taking their eyes off the road. Then again, she was old.

Looking back, I see the look of bewilderment, fear and confusion on her wizened visage. Her elderly toad-dom was so complete, in fact, so supreme, it made my dynamic 82-year-old mom seem a regular Giselle Bundchen by comparison. It made me think that this woman possibly was too old to be driving.

If the number of unsolicited communications I get from the AARP are any indication, I should be more tuned in to matters of elderly driving. The AARP started sending me invites when I was in my 30s. But time has passed and the pace seems to have seriously quickened of late.

Of course, I'll never retire. Not just like plenty of Americans because I can't afford to. I just don't really want to.

I don't look forward to the day when it is decided I cannot drive. It doesn't seem fair, but then again, sometimes maybe it is, at least in the eyes of the rest of society. Fair? You could ask my MGA. Its rear bumper is toast, its left taillight is punched out and some very light bodywork to the left rear fender and rear shroud will be required. But since much delicate and skilled paint matching will also be required, I'm not expecting any change back from a $5,000 bill.

There's getting rear-ended and there's getting punch in the nose.

Takeaway 3: Old Drivers are a potential menace. Good thing there'll be automatic highways soon.

Top photo: Boston Public Library via Flickr