All I was thinking about as I drove through the darkness was getting home. There was dinner to make and half a dozen other things to see to. I wanted to spend some time with my daughters. I wanted to call my son. And I wanted to get to bed early enough, and be alert enough, to read for a bit. So, when I saw the car barreling through the intersection, I was caught off guard.
For one thing, I had the green light. That meant the other car was running a red light.
In the split second it took for my brain to work this all out, my foot had already hit the brakes. I hit them hard. I felt my car grind and shudder, slowly, heartstoppingly slowly, to a stop. Fortunately, the weather was warm and the streets were dry.
The other car never slowed.
Just as it passed directly in front of me, a flash of white sedan illuminated by my headlights, I saw a woman at the wheel. She was directly looking at me, not at the road, and she was talking on a cell phone.
I mean that literally. While I held my heart between my teeth, willing my car to stop quickly enough to keep from hitting her broadside, she was still talking.
I could see her lips moving.
It all happened so fast she never had time to react. She wasn’t a deer in my headlights, dazzled and addled by the light, frozen in terror. I doubt she knew she had run the light. She was totally disconnected from what was happening.
“Oh, my god,” I imagined her saying to the person on the other end. “This car, like, almost hit me. So, anyway…”
It’s funny how your mind works.
While I was looking at the driver, certain that I was about to hit her, marveling at her lack of fear, another part of my brain registered that she wasn’t alone.
In the back seat, at precisely the point at which my car would have collided with hers if I hadn’t been able to stop, was a child.
I couldn’t see the baby, but I could see the top of her head just visible over the door. The top of her head, – caught in the glare – was crowned by a downy halo of baby hair.
The woman never slowed. She raced through the intersection and sped away.
By this time, the light behind me had changed again and cars were moving up fast. I took my trembling foot off the brake and hit the gas.
I was still shaking when I walked in the door. With fear, at first, and then with anger.
What was so important to talk about, I wondered, that made it necessary for that mother to drive her child straight into the path of my car?
The answer, I was forced to admit – from personal experience – was nothing. It was probably nothing at all.
Truth be told, I’m just as guilty. Most nights, as I make my way home, I’ll call to say I’m on the way. Some nights I listen to a dictated grocery list, edited and added to by whoever else is in the room. I repeat the items they call out, so I won’t forget and have to make another trip later. I’m driving, but my mind is on milk, bread and cat food and ice cream.
Other nights I mediate disputes between siblings or play the part of dictator, crushing the plans made in my absence: No, you may not go out tonight. No, we can’t order pizza. No, I don’t want to go to the mall.
A law has been passed and soon anyone driving and holding a cell phone can be ticketed. You can still talk, but you’ll have to keep your hands free.
I’m left to wonder if that will be enough.
Like everyone else, I agreed with the law on principal. But I see the flaw in the proposal. On the phone is on the phone. You can have two hands on the steering wheel but that doesn’t mean your mind is on the road.
The night after the near miss, I pulled out of the parking garage. I reached for my phone, to make the call that would alert everyone that I was on my way. And then I put my hand back on the wheel.
The image of a halo of soft baby hair – burned into my mind’s eye – stopped me.
The call could wait.