August 8, 2007

Eat Dessert First

So I’m driving north on I-5 to get back to the Antelope Valley after my judging gig in Santa Clarita. It’s four lanes of traffic and the right two are filled with lines of trucks. I see one of them merging into the #2 lane (the one closest to the center divider is #1, the one to its right is #2, and so on) and I’m irritated because the trucks are supposed to stay in the right two lanes. I shift into the #1 lane to get out of the truck’s way.

That’s when I see why the guy changed lanes, and so quickly. A wheel, with a tire still on it, shoots out from the front of the truck, and veers diagonally into my lane. It’s bouncing up and down, and going in the same direction as traffic, faster than my car. Somehow, it must have come off a car or some other vehicle that was disabled; I couldn’t see what was going on since it was behind all the trucks. But there’s this wheel bouncing across four lanes of 75-mile-an-hour traffic.

I slow down to let it pass in front of me, which it does. It bounces off the center divider and back into my lane, back into the #2 lane, and then rolls for a few seconds, and then back into my lane again. By now, I’ve had to slow down quickly three times, and nearly come to a stop until the wheel’s momentum starts to decrease and it veers back to the right. Then I punch the gas and get ahead of the wheel. By then, plenty of other vehicles have caught up with me – and they don’t know what’s been going on, all they know is some idiot is doing thirty in the fast lane on I-5, so they pass me on the right.

Only after these cars zoom past me on the right do I start to realize just how extraordinarily dangerous that situation was. The whole thing took maybe twelve, fifteen seconds to play out. But all it really takes is a moment of inattention, a moment of ignoring what other vehicles on the road are up to, and that’s it, dude. Lights out. Wife has to ask about bereavement leave. When I realized how close that tire had come to me, three times, each time faster than sixty miles an hour, I got the shakes a little bit. I recovered, I was able to keep on driving, but it wasn’t until after the fact that I really understood just what a close call it was.

And there’s absolutely no way to predict that sort of thing. Take an extra two minutes to answer an e-mail and maybe you’re on the I-35 W bridge when it goes down. Maybe you don’t feel like flossing today. Will the extra three minutes you save put you past, in, or not yet at the intersection when the school bus blows the stop sign? What exactly is the risk of latent epilepsy resulting in a grand mal seizure while driving? Very, very low, I know, but greater than zero. And there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it if it happens.

The most common phrase picked up at the end of voice recordings on the "black boxes" recovered from crashed airplanes is "Oh, shit." That phrase may well be one of the most common sets of "last words" spoken by humans.

I realize all you can do in life is your best, take a reasonable amount of care and not expose yourself to insane risks – but at some point, statistically, that tire is going to come out from traffic at you, too. Today I got lucky and I was paying attention, so I avoided it. But at almost any moment, any of us could be destroyed by the uncaring machinations of chance in a complex cosmos. When you really understand what that means, unless you’re criminally insane, you’ll get the shakes worse than I got them on the freeway this afternoon.

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