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March 29, 2004

A Car Accident

There were two things I noticed about the dog before it hit my car. The first was that it was a beagle -- I could tell by the body shape and by the brown and black spots on the coat. The second was that there was no possible way it was not going to hit my car.

Which is not to say I didn't make the attempt to avoid the connection; I swerved. This is why, to be blunt, the dog only hit the forward edge of the car instead of going under the wheels. In one of those things that is a little strange to be thankful for, it was a relatively clean hit: When I stopped the car and got out to inspect the damage, there was no blood on the bumper and nothing on the wheels. I imagine the dog's head and upper body hit the bumper and then the animal quickly went in the other direction. It's pretty clear also that the dog was dead the second it hit the car. I think this is a good thing.

I saw the dog the fraction of a second before it hit the car; I didn't see the hit but I heard it and I felt it. I immediately pulled over to the side of the car and Krissy and I did our own internal triage: We were fine, Athena was fine and our dog (who was in the car with us) was fine. Although I believe the collision was unavoidable, I managed to keep control of the car without much of a problem; I was a fan of ABS brakes before but now even more so. Athena was of course very upset that something had happened, so both Krissy and I made ourselves very calm and explained to her that something hit our car but that everything was fine and we just had to check some things. I got out and inspected the damage: the front bumper on the driver's side was caved in, but otherwise superficially the car seemed fine.

That part of my brain that does these things did the quick math for f=m*a: Beagles are not very large dogs, and I'm reasonably sure the dog didn't hit square on. And yet the damage to the bumper was extensive; I doubted this was something a body shop was just going to hammer out. My wife works in insurance and sees the damages that's visited on cars that have been hit by deer or livestock, and it's literally like someone hit a wall made out of blood. I've never hit anything larger than a bird before, so while I could intellectualize the idea that a deer, or a cow (or a person) could destroy a car, the understanding of it pretty much wasn't on my radar. It is now. I also very much understand the idea that you have that fraction of a second where you perceive something leaping toward your car and you process the knowledge of what is going to happen next without having the ability to do anything about it.

You have no possible idea of how grateful I am that this incident didn't involve a human being. As it happens, when I was 10 years old, I was hit by car. I leapt out from between two cars and into the road to cross a street and got whacked by a Pinto; the impact threw me about 30 feet into the air and turned by right tibia and fibula into powder. I can't imagine how that poor man who hit me felt (he was out of his car and helping me the second after it happened; he didn't run and as far as I know he never tried to avoid blame), but considering how I felt after I felt the dog hit my bumper, well. 25 years on, my heart goes out to that guy.

Once it was clear that we were all right and the car was not destroyed, I went back to look for the dog. I doubted it was alive but if it was I needed to know, and in any event I would want to know if it had any tags or other identification so we could find its owners. Dogs are part of homes; legally there's probably no "hit and run" penalty for hitting a pet, but speaking as a pet owner I know I would hate it if my dog went missing and I had no idea what had happened to her. Being a decent human being meant going back to find the dog.

I didn't find the dog; I found the owner, in front of whose house I hit the dog. Her first question was about me and my family and if everyone was okay. I assured her we were fine and that I was coming back to find the dog. She mentioned that her son had already picked up the dog from the road and asked again if we were okay and then told me that she would be happy to give me any insurance information I needed. I walked back with her to her house to get the information and she said that she had gone to feed the cats when the dog got out and headed for the road. She had heard the hit from our car and then another as another car hit the animal (the other car, from what I could see, did not stop).

The dog lay in the driveway, next to the family cars. It was dark enough that I didn't see the dog or any damage very well, but it was clear enough that the animal was lifeless. As I said before I imagine it was dead the instant it hit my car, but to the extent that something like this can be considered good, it was good to see that whatever suffering the dog had was brief. It's hard to know your pet has died. But I imagine it would be harder to have that pet have lived even briefly in such terrible pain.

I told the owner that I was very sorry for her loss, and she said something I think was very important, which was that up to the minute the dog had died that it knew it had been loved. It had had a good life, with people who cared for it; it was never abused or hurt. It had known happiness; it had known love. At one point she reached down and touched the dog, as if to say goodbye. I have no doubt that what the owner had told me was true: This was a dog that was loved, whose life was good until the moment it died. For a dog, you can't ask for much more. You can't ask for much more if you're a human, either.

We're fine; the car can be fixed; the dog is dead. Our insurance companies will handle the details and assign legal blame for the purpose of paying for the car. I am very sad for the family and woman who lost a beloved pet, and grateful that her first contact with me, the one whose car it hit, was one of concern for the well-being of me and my family, and understanding that the death was something that I wish with the whole of my heart had not happened. It take some measure of grace to be able to do that. If my dog were to run in front of someone's car, I could only hope that I would have the same understanding and concern that she showed me and mine.

For my part, I'm fine. I wish the dog hit not been in front of my car, but I am convinced there was little I could have done to avoid it. It was night, it was a rural road, and the dog was moving quickly toward my car. I did what I could in the circumstance to do the right thing for my family and for the family who owned the dog. As far as awful things go, this one ended as well as it could, and I'm satisfied that I did as many things right as could be done. All the same, it's not something I'd want to have to go through again. It's not something I'd wish on anyone.

Posted by john at March 29, 2004 12:36 PM

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