The Vulnerabilities We Hide

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After two fender benders, author and editor Myrna Blyth is forced to confront the reality of aging

I think I lost it after being sideswiped by an 18-wheeler, going 65. I was stopped when it happened, waiting to merge onto a highway. He clipped the mirror off the rental car I was driving and never even slowed down.

But that was my second accident in two weeks. Earlier I had managed to total my car going five miles an hour through an EZ Pass lane. The lane, I only realized after the fact, was extremely narrow and I must have been too close to the left side. A piece of metal sliced the driver’s side front tire and turned the car into a low barricade. No one was hurt and the cops who surrounded me were very solicitous. They assured me, “It happens all the time, lady.” Oh, great. A week later at the same crossings, there were suddenly signs pointing to the wider lanes.

My car was 12 years old and, although, it had only gone 67,000 miles, I really needed a new one with four-wheel drive to help me cope with my high, often icy, country driveway. But looking for a car in New York City, where I live during the week, sucks, and even though I made a Talmudic study of the car issue of Consumer Reports, I really hated shopping, comparing and test driving.

In truth, I have never liked to drive and I learned late. I grew up in a suburb but graduated high school at 16. All my friends were 17 and had already learned to drive, and so senior year they drove me around. After college I moved to New York City. Who needed a car? Who needed to drive? And when I married, my husband did the driving while I listened to the kids recite multiplication tables in the backseat, or read the maps, or found the radio station we both liked.

But in the last few years, my husband has stopped driving and so I have become the designated driver. I was even getting somewhat comfortable, at least on the roads I knew, before the EZ Pass incident. That upset me quite a bit. But after the mirror clipping, you can imagine, right? I became almost phobic.

I had to drive the car without a mirror on that very busy 18-wheeler-laden highway and take it back to the rental-car place. Then I had to get yet another different car to drive. All they had was a large, bulky, sluggish hatchback. I managed to get it to my Connecticut house and then spent the weekend inside, refusing to get the papers or go shopping. We made do with what was already in the refrigerator. I spent the whole sleepless weekend worrying about getting the second rental car and my husband and I back to New York safely.

By the way, I am a cautious driver, one who has never gotten a ticket, never speeded, had not even a sip of wine when I knew I would have to drive. No matter. I suddenly felt anxious, frightened, vulnerable and drained of confidence – not only about driving but about absolutely everything. I spent the weekend wanting someone, please, to take care of me. I don’t think I ever felt that way before.

I also felt, for the first time ever, really old. Or rather I realized that the way I was feeling is the way one must feel when one is really old and afraid.

How am I now? Better. I got a new car, or should I say a “pre-owned” new car, and have driven it a bit. I am studying its manual and am taking an online defensive driving course. And when I told my daughter-in-law how old I felt that weekend, she laughed. “You needed two accidents to begin to feel old. Most people feel old the first time they see a wrinkle.”

Yes, the accidents taught me to be extra alert every second behind the wheel and I know that’s very important. But that terrified weekend also gave me a far greater understanding of the vulnerability hidden within myself – hidden, I suspect, within us all.

Myrna Blyth is the founding editor of More magazine, was the longtime editor-in-chief of Ladies’ Home Journal and was senior editor for Family Circle magazine. She was also the chairman of the President’s Commission on White House Fellowships. Currently she writes for The National Review Online.

17 Responses so far.

  1. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    Honestly, unless you have that feeling, that intuition, I would not automatically put your accident woes on to “aging”.  In spite of the recession – or perhaps because of it – every highway, large and small, in my state is underconstruction.  To say that you can easily get in dangerous situations is to understate the fact.  Always in an construction area, that left lane is not a whole lane and you have to deal with a barrier on the left side on top of it.  Interstates are the worst in construction.  Deciding what is the safe lane rather than the faster lane is what we have to do — but not the left. 
    I haven’t had an accident but have felt tense at times, especially with a semi in the next lane.  BUT if you really feel you are not a good driver any more, DO give it up.  . as once you know, you are risking others’ lives — and we don’t want that.  Two of my friends who were begged to not drive and gave the usual excuses each were killed in car crashes in slower streets, ruining others as they did it. 

    The worse I have seen in the last month is being caught in lines in a constuction zone and seeing a car ahead decide to make an illegal U-turn crossing a center division without knowing – though the orange things were there – that it was newly poured cement.  We had the odd feeling of seeing a then new car get caught as it turned and sink slowlyto the depth of its tires in the cement with all four wheels.  Life can get worse!

  2. avatar Linda Myers says:

    I have never been in a wreck – in which I did not total a car in the process. I rarely if ever think about those times, and just go forward. A handful of other times, potentially deadly experiences I was spared from in the process.

    Unless you truly feel that by stopping driving, you would just feel better – don’t let fear stop you otherwise. Each day is a new beginning!

  3. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    Accidents can happen at any age at any time. It is more coincidence that you had two close together. They do rattle us because the implication is that we weren’t alert even when we did nothing to cause them. I refuse to go through one bank lane because the posts are so narrow and I have seen vehicles scrape paint. If I were not familiar with the bank or lanes I could be forced into that lane by the traffic flow the same way you had the accident at EZ Pass. The other was clearly not your fault. As we age we begin to wonder if we are losing our abilities when things happen. We don’t make those assumptions with younger drivers under similar circumstances. None of what happened was your fault,

  4. avatar Deirdre Cerasa says:

    Dear Myrna, I have always loved driving. It is genetic; passed down from my Dad who wold have driven to Europe had there been a bridge. But, a few years ago I was driving back from Virginia on a sunny morning when a semi clipped my passenger side mirror off and then forced me into a construction lane with cones and that got the other mirror. I chased that darn truck for about 5 miles, honking until he finally stopped. I called the Stated Police as well. All the driver said was; he didn’t see my car. He was cited and the company paid for the damage. It did spook me for a while and it still does. What I won’t let happen is my love of driving. I hope you can get your driving mojo back. And far more important get rid of the fear. Unless of course it is something that is just too much for you. We don’t ever want to make our world smaller. Best to you!!!

    • avatar Lila says:

      Dierdre, good for you for holding that semi driver accountable!!

      We live on a very curvy, hilly road which is heavily used by commuters… including some trucks. It is NOT a good road for large vehicles. The road was widened slightly a few years ago but still – one must stay alert and really be engaged with one’s driving. There are many accidents. Texting, drinking, speeding, just not paying attention, not knowing how their own cars fit on the road.

      I have a narrow car and know where it will fit; this is a comfort when people come around the curves with their wheels (and mirrors) well into the oncoming lane of traffic. I can hug the white line and slip through; but I honk at the other drivers anyway. You only get one lane!

  5. avatar Barbara says:

    You don’t say how old you are or how your reaction time may have slowed. Your two accidents suggest that you may have some depth perception or response time challenges. Please think long and hard about whether you should still be driving. Too often we try to hang on to driving privileges because how else will we get around? Not driving makes you very dependent on others and creates an inconvenience on both yourself and those you depend on.

    Think about this. Two things happened in the past two weeks in my life. My sister’s mother-in-law is 78. Her reaction time has slowed. She jokes about it. She had a couple of fender benders where it was just her and a light pole, her and a parked car, her and the side of a garage. Great fodder for funny stories. Until two weeks ago when it wasn’t a fender bender. She didn’t see a car pull into her lane and hit it. The other driver was killed. A week after that, my daughter was rear ended by a 90 year old man. She was stopped at a light. He just plowed into the back of her. He said he saw her but just couldn’t stop in time. Fortunately she was in a mini van and was just shook up, with several thousand dollars worth of damage to the back of her van. His car was severely damaged. He hit his head on the steering wheel. Turns out his son had been thinking maybe his dad should stop driving but what was the harm. He doesn’t go far. Just a few fender benders.

    People’s lives are at stake.

    • avatar Lila says:

      My Dad stopped driving at age 87, but he had the luxury of my brother living with him and taking care of all his errands, house maintenance and driving to appointments. Not all elderly people have that.

      I really advocate expanding our public transportation systems in this country. Living in Europe, we saw so many older folks riding bikes in the many generous bike lanes, and using the buses and trains. Unless you travel out into the countryside, you can do quite well without a car there. It really helps people maintain their independence much longer than here in the US.

      • avatar Chris Glass` says:

        I am also in favor of decent public transportation (bring back the trains!) as there are many people, not just elderly, who don’t or shouldn’t drive. Let’s not forget those unable to afford a vehicle, maintenance and insurance.

  6. avatar D C says:

    My mother was never comfortable behind the wheel of a car, but living in Houston, the mecca of suburban sprawl, there wasn’t much choice.  You either drive, or you become a hermit.  Public transportation here is still in it’s infancy.  She didn’t learn to drive until after she got married at the ripe old age of 17 — I think she was 19 before she actually learned to drive.  She never got on a freeway in her life.  Some of her family who lived out in the rural parts of the state would be just as phobic driving in Houston, preferring to have us visit them rather than take their lives into their hands coming to visit us. 

    I grew up here.  I drive around this town and know most parts like the back of my hand.  And I know the parts to stay out of, especially after dark.  One thing I know like I know my own name, Myrna, is that your second wreck was avoidable.  You never come to a stop when you’re trying to merge onto a highway.   As you approach the road you are to merge with, you have to watch the traffic on that road and get up to speed with those cars.  You may have to slow  a little, or gun it a little to get into your space, but if you stop and wait for someone to let you in, you are dead in the water.  The people on the highway/freeway are expecting you to merge with them.  They might be jerks who don’t give you any help at all, but they are expecting you to slide in there. 
    Highway driving is scary.  It helps to have a NASCAR attitude, especially in Houston.  That means nerves of steel, the ability to see the traffic around and ahead of you and anticipate where your next move might have to be, and an understanding that if you’re not the fastest thing on the road, you need to get out of the left lane and let the fastest cars go past rather than over you. 

    I drive a small car — 5-speed transmission.  That helps a lot when you have to have power fast to avoid an accident.  I love my little 2001 Saturn, and am dreading the day when she finally tells me she’s too tired to go on.  If she can hang on for another few years, I’ll be replacing her with a Camaro!  Neon Lime Green!  And no, my kids will not be allowed to drive it.  Let them work hard and get their own toys!

    • avatar Lila says:

      DC, “You never come to a stop when you’re trying to merge onto a highway.” THANK YOU!

      Hubby and I were just talking about this today. There is a difficult merge ramp onto I-95 near us; short, uphill, and seems like it’s always a ton of traffic screaming along. The faint of heart often come to the bottom of the ramp and stop. Gaaaaahhhhh! Really hate getting stuck behind that. And – if I am accelerating on the ramp and the jerks around here make it hard to merge in that short space – I will keep going on the shoulder if I have to, but I won’t stop. Around here that will just get you rear-ended or start a road-rage incident.

  7. avatar Bella Mia says:

    Having a mirror knocked off is not a fender bender. Going though an EZ Pass and having the lane be too narrow is the fault of the design of the transit authority and you should be reimbursed for your car expenses. Both of these are NOT YOUR FAULT!

    Here’s a harrowing tale: My husband was driving in the winter on 95 from NJ to DC when all of a sudden an enormous sheet of ice lifted off the top of a semi and came hurtling towards his car and crashed into his windshield shattering it entirely. He had to stick his head out the window and steer the car over to the side.

    But honestly most accidents happen in slow bumper to bumper traffic, or while driving under the influence. The other issue that pops up is a flat tire and the key to that is to pulls way, way, way off to the side. Freakanomics 2 has a great chapter on the safety and hazards of driving. It is very reassuring.

    • avatar Lila says:

      Bella, your story reminded me of a co-worker’s story. He and his wife were on the Interstate (I don’t recall where), when a deer suddenly leaped into the road and crashed into their windshield. In an instant, the deer was disemboweled on the sharp top edge of the windshield, dumping its innards into the car, then slid off the hood as my friend braked and then steered the car – blindly – to the shoulder.

      Another driver had seen the accident and pulled up behind my friends to make sure they were all right. My friend opened his car door and got out, the deer’s liver rolling out of his lap as he did so, and plopping wetly onto the ground. You can imagine how it must have looked, and the initial shock of the other driver.

      The car was nearly totaled, but not for structural damage; the smell was so bad they had to replace the front seats and all the upholstery and carpet.

      • avatar Deirdre Cerasa says:

        Oh Lila!
        We have that one too! About 15 years ago, my husband was driving home from work late at night (he is a restaurateur) on a winding road to our suburban house. A deer jump out from the trees onto the hood of his car, a hoof through the windshield! He slammed on the brakes, went off the road and just missed a huge oak tree. He was able to call for help. The police had huge gloves to pull the deer out of and off the car, so my husband could get out. Car totaled, husband rattled but fine! Great story for friends and family!

      • avatar Chris Glass` says:

        We put my car in the shop for routine maintenance so I drove my husband to work in his since I had the day off. On the way back home I hit a huge deer that ran in front of his car. It was hit the deer or hit the car in the next lane so I braked and hoped for the best. The sheriff told me I was lucky that the deer had rolled off the hood and not hit the windshield as many of those collisions are fatal. We ended up getting a rental while ours was fixed. The insurance company never upped the premiums as they said car/deer accidents are considered to be unavoidable.

        • avatar Lila says:

          Yes – my friends were very aware how close their deer strike came to possibly being fatal for them, too – the windshield was pushed in with that sharp edge protruding toward them – and could have slashed them as easily as it slashed the deer. And then, while still moving at highway speed, they couldn’t see anything thanks to all the cracks and glop – just aimed for where the shoulder must be and hoped any other cars would get out of their way. They were very, very lucky. Covered in deer blood but none of their own.

  8. avatar Rho says:

    My dad never drove, but he could give directions to anywhere.  I have been driving for many years.  The car I had before this one was an ’89 Camry.  It got hit a few times, should have been totaled, but they always fixed it.  Kept it for 21 years, until it got stolen, and it was all caught on camera.  Was found after I bought my Versa.  Trashed!!!  The video shows a young man following me into the drug store, I was buying nail polish, he went out with a set of keys and drove my car away,  I am thankful he did not mug me, better the car than me.

    I am not afraid to drive, only thing is now that I am older I find it hard driving at night.  Also, all the new cars look alike.  They do not have their own personality anymore.

    • avatar Lila says:

      Rho, glad it was just a car theft and not a carjacking with you in it! One of the risks in certain areas around here. Heard a story on the radio the other day – someone was forced out of their car by thieves intending to carjack it, but they ran off when they saw it was a stick shift. Ha!