Driving Almost Killed Her. How She's Making Sure It Doesn't Happen Again.
Driving Almost Killed Her. How She's Making Sure It Doesn't Happen Again.
This story was written in March of 2014:
This has been a long, hard winter. And it's not because of the frigid temperatures. For me, at least, I've been longing for this season to end so I can get back to driving.
See seven years ago, I was in a flukey accident which changed my life forever. I was travelling eastbound on the 401, headed to my hometown. At the time, I was working at CTV on the assignment desk. The weather that January day was beautiful. The sky was perfectly blue, the sun was shining in full force and white, puffy cotton ball clouds dotted the atmosphere. It was one of those picturesque days I was glad to be alive (a thought I had right before the accident happened). The fact that it was about -10 didn't seem to bother me; the sun was shining, I was driving to see my parents (and to run with my father) and I was singing along to some of my favourite tunes.
One of the few things I remember about the conditions on the highway at the time was the amount of ice that was scattered all over the ground; broken sheets and panels of ice chunks that had flown off the roofs of transport trucks. I recall telling myself to avoid the behemoths to ensure none of those hard slabs smashed into my car. I applauded myself for being so aware of my surroundings.
It was shortly after that, as I moved to pass a mack truck travelling at about 120 km an hour, that the exact thing I wanted to avoid happened. As I drove past a transport from Quebec, a massive sheet of ice slipped sideways off the truck's roof and straight through my windshield. I lost control of the car.
After that my memory gets a bit fuzzy. I don't remember calling my dad screaming (I couldn't remember to call 911). I don't know how or where I stopped the car (or if it stopped itself after the crash). I don't recall when the highway was shutdown. The first memory I have is of waking up to firefighters putting me on a stretcher, news helicopters hovering over my head, saying, "this girl shouldn't be alive right now; she got lucky."
Even now, as I think about those moments, my eyes fill with tears, my throat tightens, my hands shake. Part of the reason is because my post-accident recovery was anything but easy. Save for the physical side effects (I sustained a significant amount of damage to my entire upper body) and the therapy I had to go through to regain full and comfortable movement in my right arm, it was the mental fallout that nearly destroyed my life.
Within days of the accident, I went into a deep depression, I became withdrawn (which was very unlike me) and was told because my newsroom job was too stressful I had to take a short-term disability leave; suicidal thoughts began to creep in; I cried for what felt like hours. I vowed I would never set foot in a car again. It was shortly thereafter that I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (a.k.a. PTSD).
I had never heard of PTSD before that moment -- it wasn't openly discussed like it is now. What I was told is I would have a long, hard road to feeling like myself again. I had to fully come to terms with what happened and overcome my fears. I had to learn how to feel 100 per cent comfortable with driving in similar wintery conditions. I had to, basically, heal. And that was going to take time.
Which brings us to February 2014. Seven years after the accident and I still wasn't OK with driving. I did it from time to time, but what I never admitted to anyone was that when I did it, I felt like I was dying inside. Save for the odd moment of fear and anxiety, I had been able to overcome my dark and stormy past (which included a divorce). I had almost wholly healed. By 2012, I had started to feel like myself again. The last battleground for me was to conquer life behind the wheel.
Enter Buick. The car company had invited some lifestyle journalists to Quebec to take a crash course (yes, I'm aware of the irony here) in winter driving. Once there, we would be given the keys to a new 2014 Buick Regal GS AWD; from Montreal, we'd drive to one of the world's most well-known car testing facilities, iCar in Mirabel. It was there that we'd learn how to conquer driving in icy/wet road conditions.
Driving into iCar was a lot like driving toward my own version of hell. The entire facility was covered in a thick sheet of ice, the air smelled of rubber (courtesy of the tires burning as they tried to grip to the road for traction) and the weather that day sucked -- it was freezing rain with high winds and there was no visibility.
When I went in to discuss my concerns with the folks from GM and Buick (who, I have to say, were amazing -- especially because they dealt with a panicked adult in a friendly and patient way), I was pretty sure there was nothing they or anyone could say/do to get me a) into the car on the icy tracks, b) stunt driving and c) feeling confident behind the wheel.
Turns out, I was wrong.
I left the iCar facility (and my best friend who came along for the rough ride with me, Stacey, can attest to this) a different woman. With a little help and coaching from the stunt drivers and some information from the folks at Buick, I actually got over my fear of driving. Not only that, I did doughnuts (when you turn traction control off and spin your car around in circles on the ice) in the parking lot.
So what changed? And how could I, after seven years, possibly get over such an incredible fear of driving in one day?
The answer to that has to do with what I learned about hitting the road in slick and slippery conditions from the folks at GM. These tips have altered the way I understand cars and their capabilities; and they've made me feel more confident in my skills as a driver. They're simple enough that anyone can -- and should -- put them into practice -- if not when the roads are icy, but also when April's showers flood our streets.
9 and 3
When I was a kid, I was taught to hold my hands at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel; this positioning gave the arms enough time/space to react to any oncoming danger. That, however, was wrong. According to the driving instructors at iCar, the best position is 9 and 3 (it gives you a larger steering wheel turning radius and you'll have a firmer grip on the wheel meaning you'll be less likely to lose control).
Never, ever (ever, ever, ever) buy a car without traction control. And if you have a car with that option, never, ever turn it off. I didn't realize the incredible difference traction control made until I was told to drive around the icy race track with it turned off. Faster than I could blink my eye, I was slipping and sliding all over the place.
Take Your Foot Off The Brake Pedal
Our first reaction as drivers is to slam on the brake when we think something bad is going to happen -- when we slip on a piece of ice, when we hydroplane in a pool of water. But, as I learned first-hand, braking is the last thing anyone should do. Cars, like the Buick we test drove, are weighted in a way that makes them hard to flip. Which means, if you hit a patch of ice and the car starts turning (to do a 360), the vehicle will, eventually, right itself. When you brake, you basically ensure that natural process doesn't happen. Which means you're more likely to hit something than you otherwise would have been.
Get To Know Your Car
Before you buy a car, get to know it, like you would get to know a new friend. Take it for a test drive (for longer than 15 minutes), ask the salesperson to walk you through every feature of the car (and ask questions about the terms you don't understand -- traction control, horsepower). All of that went a long way to making me feel like I knew what I could expect from the vehicle.
Buy Something You Feel Comfortable In
A lot of the time, people invest in a car because of the brand name or because they think it has some sort of cache. But the only thing that matters is how you feel when you're driving your ride. I never thought I'd love a Buick (seemed like an old-person-mobile to me), but this was a car I felt capable of driving. I'd buy it -- and any car that gave me that same confidence -- in a heartbeat. Screw what people think of a car's brand. Go with what you feel at ease in.
Where Your Eyes Are Looking Matters
Now, more than ever, the laws on distracted driving make sense. When you're behind the wheel, the car will follow the direction that your eyes are pointed in; this is largely because your eyes guide your mind which guides your hands which guide the steering wheel. If you're looking to something on your right, the car will gradually drift that way (ditto if you're looking left). Keep your eyes glued on the road ahead of you. (Seems like an obvious point, but far too many accidents are caused by people putting on makeup or reaching for something in the glove compartment.)
Safety Features Matter
So, ya, duh, this kind of thing matters, but certain features can make a person feel 100 per cent more confident in driving their car -- in a variety of weather conditions. My two favourites have to be the Buick Regal's Lane Departure Warning (it beeps if you accidentally cross over into another car's traffic lane) and its Forward Collision Alert (which lets you know when slow moving vehicles are ahead of you so you can slow down).