The damage to the car wasn’t that bad, just a sizeable dent in the driver’s side door and a side view mirror that was hanging by a wire. If you saw my car in any of the three years between that day and whenever my parents took it to the dump last fall you would know that we never spent the money to get the dent fixed. While we had to get the side view mirror fixed, that dent stayed with the car for the rest of her natural life (see below). It went to New York to visit friends, to Iowa to interview politicians, to Canada on more than one occasion, and back and forth between South Bend and Northbrook more times than I can count.
Everywhere the car went, people asked me about the huge gash in the driver’s side door, and I always told them the story about how my sister hit the car when she was going to an early morning swim practice. As it turns out however, that has shockingly been my sister’s only screw-up behind the wheel to this day.
Today is my youngest brother’s sixteenth birthday. Someday soon he will go to the DMV to take his driver’s test, and our parents will celebrate because their 23-year careers as drivers to sports practices, school, friend’s houses, and movies will have finally come to an end. While I wish that they’d celebrate by throwing Molotov cocktails at the seven seat Lincoln Navigator that is no longer necessary (the only car they own that can fit us all, albeit uncomfortably), it’s more likely that they celebrate by throwing ridiculous sums of money towards a company that will insure Mike in his new adventures on the road.
In honor of that, here are some stories about driving.
Late on a Thursday night about seventeen months ago I was driving my friend’s car down a country road in West Virginia (nailed it) when the all too familiar sight of police flashers appeared in my window immediately after I exited a toll booth. A couple friends and I were driving from South Bend to Chapel Hill for the Notre Dame-UNC football game and it was getting late on I-77 near Charleston, WV. The West Virginia State Trooper slowly made his way towards our car shining his flashlight towards me.
“Is there something wrong, officer?” I asked, perplexed about why I had been pulled over exiting a toll booth.
“License and registration, please” the trooper asked as my roommate started to fish through the glove compartment looking for the registration to his car.
After handing the officer my driver’s license and watching my roommate sort through a disaster of papers in his glove compartment, my mind started racing about why we had been pulled over. Because it was dark, and the road was curvy and hilly; I was pretty sure that I hadn’t been speeding. I hoped it was just confusion about the California plates driving south through Appalachia because I couldn’t afford to get a ticket. Not then.
Four months earlier I had been pulled over on that stretch of I-80 right near Michigan City for cruising from South Bend to Chicago close to 90 mph. It would still be a couple months before that ticket was expunged from my record and the last thing I needed was for my insurance rates to go up (something that probably would have convinced my parents that I needed to pay for my own car insurance).
“Is there something wrong, officer?” I asked again, as my roommate continued to search through the glove compartment for a registration that actually said 2008 on it.
“Have you boys been drinking,” the officer asked as he shined his light into the backseat towards my friend.
“No sir, we’ve been driving for the past eight hours from South Bend, we’re on our way to North Carolina for the Notre Dame Football game,” I said, hoping that the Notre Dame reference might get us out of whatever trouble we were in (I’ve actually seen that work before, in the middle of Alabama of all places).
“Well, we had somebody call in about twenty minutes ago telling us that you sideswiped a guard rail,” he said, as my roommate finally found the registration for the car and we passed it along to the trooper. I might have been a little tired at that point in the night, but I certainly hadn’t sideswiped any guard rails; something the three of us immediately told the trooper before he retreated to his car with our information.
As we sat there in the car waiting, I was nervous and scared. Getting another ticket then would have been disastrous, and I was pretty certain that I hadn’t done anything wrong. I was pretty sure that he couldn’t give me a ticket for something that he didn’t see (something that I didn’t think had even happened), but I really had no idea what to expect as he walked back towards the car.
The trooper gave me a written warning (which I proceeded to nail to the wall behind our bar when we returned to South Bend) and told us that we shouldn’t drive if we were too tired. We told him that we were planning to get off at the next exit for the night (which was true) and we parted ways as my heartbeat fell back to a normal pace and my roommate tried to organize all of the things that had been in his glove compartment.
The first and only time I got in a significant car accident was my senior year of high school. I was leaving the high school parking lot, making a left turn onto a small (but often busy) street* adjacent to the school and I just didn’t see the other car coming. Because neither car was moving very quickly, it wasn’t really that eventful. Sure there was damage to both cars, but each could also still be driven just fine.
Despite the fact that the signage at that intersection was changed some time after I graduated to prevent this type of accident (stops sings were added in every direction), it really doesn’t make a good story. I just felt obligated to include it here for full disclosure.
*It was the curvy street that Ferris Bueller speeds down as Cameron is coming out of hiding after they pick up Sloan from the high school. I think we should rename this street Hughes Boulevard in honor of the late director. Does anybody know somebody I can propose this to?
Before I left for China I heard about something called an International Driver’s Permit, something that I knew I had to have (even if I’d never use it). As soon as I arrived in China and saw the crazy mayhem that is the streets here, however, I knew that I would not be actually using the driver’s permit, because I had no intention to ever drive while in Asia.
Things changed once we left China.
On our first day across the Chinese border, we rented motorbikes in Luang Namtha, Laos. I had never driven a motorbike before, and one of the first things I did on my bike was crash into a small sign outside our guesthouse. After figuring out how to stop and accelerate the bike (although not really knowing when it was appropriate to change gears), we were on our way motoring around the beautiful Lao countryside.
In this area of Laos, the only trouble we encountered with the motorbikes was the motorbikes themselves. Once I figured out how the bike worked, there wasn’t really anything else to worry about. There was hardly any traffic and there were certainly no major intersections in this area of the countryside (in fact, I’m fairly certain I only saw one traffic light the entire two weeks we were in the country). In northern Laos, the degree of difficulty with the motorbikes was relatively low.
Things changed when we arrived in Indonesia.
After a week of diving on the small island of Gili Trawangan and one day in the supposedly “relaxed” city of Ubud, Gavin and I found ourselves back at Kuta Beach (9 days after my birthday) and looking to spend one night further south on the Bukit Peninsula of Bali. To do this, we left our bags at our hotel and walked down the alley where it didn’t take long for somebody to say, “Yes, transport, yes, motorbike.” This time, we actually wanted to rent motorbikes.
With our motorbikes all gassed up from the guy selling fuel in old vodka bottles further down the alley, we began to ride towards the main road when I thought to myself: “there is going to be a lot of traffic on the main road,” and then “oh shit, they drive on the left side of the road here.” Whatever happened, this was certainly going to be a lot different than driving down the country roads of rural Laos.
The main road that the alley dumped into was luckily a one way street, so the first right turn I made was somewhat normal, except for the fact that I was on a motorbike and I was turning into a pack of motorbikes that I would have to somehow keep up with. I tried to stay in this pack for a while and do what everybody else was doing, but it wouldn’t last long.
Over the years when I have been driving around the United States, I often encountered traffic on highways or regular streets. Sometimes motorcycles will take this opportunity to drive straight through the traffic between the lanes. Whenever I was driving my car in America I wished I could do that to avoid the traffic, but when I was on a motorbike driving across Bali I desperately wished that it wasn’t expected of me.
When traffic was slow on the streets of Bali, the motorbikes all drove down the center lane or the shoulder to get around cars, which was one thing; but when cars were moving faster, the motorbikes would move in the lane of opposite traffic to get around cars. Gavin had gotten farther ahead as I trailed a car and looked for an opening where I thought I could get through. I moved towards the right side of the lane and the center of the street and followed some motorbikes into the oncoming traffic and around the car.
Soon enough we were turning onto a larger highway that was about the size of a state route such as Route 31 near Kokomo, Indiana. Each direction had a couple lanes to it, and there was a happy median in the middle of the road which meant that (at least for the moment), I wouldn’t have to cross into oncoming traffic.
The problem, however, became the speed. Since it was only my second time EVER driving a motorbike, I was still not entirely comfortable cruising at 65 with the wind in my face. I tried to keep speed with some people around me, but every time they would pass a car I would become apprehensive and hang back. It wasn’t that I was going incredibly slowly, I just wasn’t going quite as fast as the majority of the motorbikes on this street. When I finally got around one car and sped up enough to catch up with Gavin, I saw a man riding next to him in uniform and followed them off the road at the first turn.
We had been pulled over.
The officer asked for our International Driver’s Permits, which we didn’t have, and then he told us what a serious offense it was to drive motorbikes in Indonesia without an International Driver’s Permit. He told us that we would have to go to court and that there would be a trial. He said that I had been driving too slowly and that it wasn’t safe, but I knew the real reason why we had been pulled over.
For the same reason why we were pulled over in West Virginia driving a car with California plates, and why I was pulled over five months earlier driving up US-31 from Dayton to South Bend in a car with Illinois plates; we were pulled over by that officer in Indonesia because we were white. He knew that we wouldn’t be going to any court date and we wouldn’t be having any trial, and he told us that the fine was 600,000 Rupiah ($65).
After telling him that we only had 300,000 Rupiah** with us (something I instantly regretted), he agreed that would be enough to pay the
bribe fine and we were on our way. As I strapped my helmet back on and prepared
myself to get back on the road, there was a fleeting moment where I worried
that the ticket he wrote would somehow make its way back to the courthouse near
Kokomo, Indiana where I still had about a month left until my driving record
looked clean again.
Then I remembered that I was in Indonesia, and there was no way their system was organized enough to send a traffic ticket all the way to the states. So I rode my motorbike back onto the highway, and we made our way to Uluwatu.
**I later found out that we probably could have gotten out of this situation for roughly 50,000 Rupiah ($6), so next time I have an encounter with a police officer in a developing country, I’ll probably pretend like I have a lot less money.
Last winter I left our apartment in South Bend in a brutal snowstorm. I don’t know why I left (although if I had to guess, I was probably picking up some McNultys), but there was a lot of snow that night. Being from Northbrook, I had plenty of experience driving in the snow, and I had grown accustomed to it. I didn’t really think twice about going out that night.
I was driving down a dark street near my apartment when I saw a car in front of me slow down and stop. The street had not yet been touched by a plow and we were driving through an inch of fresh powder. I started to pump the brakes. Pump . . . pump . . . pump. Nothing happened, and the car was still coasting.
As I continued to pump the brakes to no avail, I thought to the second accident I had ever been involved with. Only a few weeks after my first accident I was following a friend out of school during open lunch and it was snowing. I followed him into the left turn lane and watched him stop in front of me. Pump . . . pump . . . pump. The car was slowing, but not fast enough, as I tapped the back of my friend’s car. Luckily his car had no damage, and the aesthetic damage on my car was there till the bitter end (see below).
In South Bend on that snowy winter night, I knew that I couldn’t hit the back of the car in front of me. I kept hitting the brakes, but the car was still slowly coasting towards its inevitable union with the bumper in front of me. I couldn’t let that happen, not this time, not again. Seemingly out of options I quickly spun the steering wheel all the way to the right and rolled the car into the snowy curb next to me.
The car in front of me continued on its way like nothing had happened as I turned out of the snow bank and straightened my car out on the road. My hands were shaking, but my car had survived once again.
The thing about driving is that more often than not it comes down to factors you can’t control. Maybe the weather is terrible, but you have to drive across a snow-covered highway. Maybe a construction barrel comes rolling out in front of you while you are going 75 mph with three trucks surrounding you (only by the grace of God did that barrel roll just to the side of my car). Maybe you get pulled over because your license plates are from the wrong state, or because some Good Samaritan in West Virginia thought they spotted a drunk driver.
Driving isn’t always easy, Mike, and the truth of the matter is that you are probably going to get into an accident or get pulled over at some point over the next couple years. You’ll probably have to pay a traffic ticket or two for going too fast, and you’ll probably see those flashing lights in your rearview mirror more often than you want to. The objectives should be to not get pulled over while you are still on supervision for the last ticket, and not to get in an accident so bad that your car can’t drive away from it.
The key, I suppose, is to control those things you can control without becoming too slow and irritating. So here are some rules to help you out:
Rules to remember:
1) Don’t drink and drive. Seriously, this is stupid.
2) Don’t go faster than 90 mph, especially in Ohio (although, if you’re stuck with that Hyundai, it probably won’t be possible anyways).
3) If you’re driving as the lead car in a caravan and you see a light turn yellow, don’t speed through it, as it’s just impolite to those following you.
4) If you’re driving in an inch or two of unplowed snow, stay the hell away from the guy in front of you.
5) If you’re going to do doughnuts in the GBN parking lot at 5:30 AM before swim practice on the first day it snows, make sure Coach Runkel doesn’t see you.
6) If Julie, Tim, or I call you to pick us up somewhere because we have drank too many McNultys, it’s your younger sibling obligation to do it. If you say this is unfair, then you haven’t thought it through because five years from now you will be 21 years old and looking to sleep on Julie’s couch in Miami for spring break, or Tim’s in Chicago for a night, or mine in New York for a weekend; and it will be our older sibling obligation to let you do this regardless of whatever kind of more important stuff we have going on.
For a 16-year old, driving gives you the freedom to go to Wendy’s and Sarkis whenever you feel like it and to see movies without getting a ride from Mom and Dad. As the years go on, however, this freedom will be expanded to show you places and things that are a lot more awesome than the few suburban areas you’ll drive in the next couple years, but for now enjoy what you can.
Happy Birthday Mike!!