A few things I learned on a recent Saturday afternoon:

  1. If you want to send someone’s car into an uncontrollable spin, simply veer sharply into the side of the vehicle just ahead of the rear wheel.
  2. The back seat of a police cruiser is not upholstered.
  3. Concrete median barriers are a really good idea.
  4. Never assume that a stranger has an active moral conscience.
  5. My brother and I are lucky to be alive and uninjured.

It would be the last time that Brian would drive his late-model Saturn, though neither of us could have known. Like most days that are later defined by a singular incident, this particular Saturday began as unremarkably as any other. We simply thought it would be fun to have lunch on the other side of town, and 670 was the way to go. We had just passed the Neil Avenue exit, enjoying an animated conversation, and I was right in the middle of saying something when Brian suddenly muttered a tense word of alarm. Someone in the lane to our left had just run into our rear driver side.

There wasn’t much time to process what was happening, as the collision sent us into a spin across the passing lanes. It was truly harrowing to find ourselves facing the wrong direction as we skidded through a 180-degree rotation with no power to stop or correct our motion. We were very fortunate that our path was unoccupied by vehicles, and oncoming traffic was sufficiently distant to avoid us. We rapidly approached the concrete barrier that divides the median, our vehicle now completely backwards in its orientation. I had a fleeting thought that this is it, as I expected my side of the car to crumple on impact.

We smacked into the wall in what seemed at the time to be a solid broadside crunch, though we would later conclude that it was actually a rapid succession of two impacts. First, the back end of the car smacked into the concrete with enough force to snap the rear axle, then the front of the car followed. I remember exclaiming “Ow!” as we made contact, because the collision actually seemed to hurt. Then we bounced off the wall a bit such that our front end was sticking out into the fast lane. Not quite sure what to do next, it seemed imperative to either get the car out of the road or get ourselves out of the car.

Something sounded terribly wrong as Brian struggled to maneuver his car out of traffic, eventually succeeding in pulling it close to the median wall, facing the correct direction. We gathered our wits and began to take stock of our predicament. Remarkably, there was no broken glass, nor had any airbags deployed. Most importantly, we appeared to be uninjured. I kept flexing and rotating my limbs to ensure that nothing was broken. Later in the day, Brian and I would each notice an annoying soreness in our pectoral muscles where we had been held back by our shoulder restraints. Of course, far better an annoying soreness than what otherwise might have been had we not been wearing seatbelts.

The car that struck us was a red sedan, now pulled over perhaps thirty yards in front of us. It was time to safely exit our vehicle, approach the other car, make sure the driver was alright, exchange information and call the police. Just then, to our disbelief, the red car slowly moved forward, merged into the passing lane, and took off. We were, understandably, enraged and indignant. How could anyone be so cold and irresponsible as to put others in mortal danger and flee the scene? We had not even had the opportunity to get a license number. Our instinct was to pursue our assailant until we could at least obtain that information, but when Brian attempted to pull forward, the grinding and scraping result made it clear that the Saturn wasn’t going anywhere.

Brian pressed the OnStar button and was immediately in contact with a representative who pinpointed our location and contacted the authorities. While we waited for the police to arrive, he also called his insurer and started the claims process. I noticed the dash display indicating a coolant problem, and I wondered what the extent of the damage was. Still, with traffic zooming by at very close range, we didn’t dare get out of the car to explore. An officer arrived on the scene in good time and began to collect all the relevant information.

Within minutes we learned that a passerby had called in a license plate for the car that had caused our accident. The officer told us to not get too excited about this turn of events, as witnesses frequently give erroneous information. He arranged for a tow truck to take the Saturn to the impound lot and offered to take us to my home. Brian and I both exited his car on the driver side, eased ourselves along the median wall, and ducked into the back of the police cruiser. The seat was one long bench of molded plastic, almost like an amusement park ride, and a thick window separated us from the front seat. The officer slid back a panel so we could talk along the way.

It occurred to Brian and me that neither of us had ever been in the back of a police car, nor had we ever once anticipated that we one day would be. We watched the asphalt zip by through the holes that had been drilled into the bottoms of the foot wells, wondering what horrible fluids might have drained through them in the past. It was cramped and uncomfortable, and I pondered how much more inconvenient it must be for the larger criminals. One more reason to eschew a life of crime.

The officer told us that the manner in which we had been hit is a technique taught in police training to stop fleeing vehicles. Colliding with a car just in front of its rear wheel will send it into an uncontrollable spin. Brian and I attested to its effectiveness.

Soon we were home, and aside from the growing soreness from our seatbelts and the absence of Brian’s car, it was as if nothing had happened. That, perhaps, was the most surreal part of the whole experience – sitting around as casually as we had before we were involved in a potentially fatal accident.

The damage turned out to be expensive enough to total Brian’s car, and the license plate of the vehicle that hit us turned out to be genuine. The driver, a women in her early twenties, was cited for hit and run. I hope that the consequences she now faces will deter her from further irresponsibility or at least keep her off the road. Most importantly, if she ever is ever in another accident, I hope that she has the courage to stop.

And one more thing I learned:

6. You never know when a stranger will go above and beyond to help you. Thanks to the anonymous passerby who took the time and energy to get that license plate. You did the right thing.