Being a Jackass behind the Wheel

A lot of people who know me of late know about the car crash I endured just over a year ago in Saudi Arabia. A bus driver hit the car I was in full force at an intersection while neglecting to slow down or even notice the “Stop” sign where he should have yielded. I suffered some cuts and bruises. My friend Ed who was driving got it a bit worse. My friend Lito who was sitting in the back suffered grave injuries. He didn’t make it later that day. It was a fate that I wouldn’t wish on anybody.

Only my family knows of the time when I was irresponsible driver. Nearly every young adult male has probably gone through this stage, getting behind the wheel full of excitement and testosterone. It’s only reinforced by culture and marketing, bombarded with insinuations that you’re more of a man when you go faster.

I was definitely one of those guys; treating Manila highways as racetracks; familiarizing myself with every exit, stretch, and turn to take any advantage of getting ahead while on the way to school, work, or home. I’ve felt the exhilaration getting “there” first, of weaving through traffic, of near-misses and risky maneuvers.

There was one evening I was speeding down a long two-way road with my 50-year old uncle beside me. We treated each other as buds back then, and he was too kind to let me have it if I was misbehaving. I was overtaking slower cars every so often. Then as three cars in front of me were in my way, I boldly tried to pass them all. And as I shifted to the opposite lane, a cement truck was coming towards me.

Knowing my speed and how much road I had left, I knew I could make it, but I also knew that there would be room for no error, as cars who were following behind me had closed the gap I had left. I swerved ahead of those three cars just at the right moment, and though I had a wide grin on my face, my uncle was dead silent the rest of the way. I didn’t need to look at his face to know what he was thinking.

But the rest of the way home, I could only think of one thing. I was lucky to be alive. Every other time I had remembered that night, I kept on recoiling at that near-miss moment. “What the hell were you thinking? I’ll never do that again!” Or so I thought.

A few years later, I was coming home from a friend’s birthday bash. Though I wasn’t drinking, my mind was pumped up with the verve of electronica blasting in the car. I was driving a 1994 Honda Civic, the kind of you see among rice rockets frequently pimped on the streets of LA. But it wasn’t my car. It wasn’t customized or juiced in any way. But o did my juvenile imagination shine through. I thought I was the king of the road.

A blue Mistubishi “Adventure” came up from behind, and off us idiots went weaving through the bright-lit highway. As I was behind him crossing underneath a bridge, I decided to make my move, changing lanes to overtake on the slower lane, and once again I found myself about to hit another oncoming object, this time being a slower car. I hit the breaks, but my tires couldn’t take control, and so I spun.

That was the first time in a vehicle when I felt everything slow down, just like that moment in Saudi Arabia where I saw that bus about to hit us from the driver side. As the car spun, I thought, “Brace yourself!” I didn’t know whether I was going to hit another car, or be slammed from the back.

I hit a guardrail, and spun a bit faster, but soon came to a halt. I was in shock, waiting for something to happen. Nothing did. The front tire on the right was smashed, and so went my steering. Cars slowed down behind me as I made my way to the side of the road.

My brain shouted, “Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! What if I got hit? What if I hit someone else?” I was shaken. My heart-pounding. I called Claire, who was then my girlfriend and soon my mom to tell them I was ok.

I never drove with much bravado after that. Partly because my confidence was shattered, and mostly because my perspective had changed. It was a few years after my dad had passed away. We didn’t have much, and now I had wrecked my mom’s way of getting around. My mom was grateful nothing happened to me, but later on she joked, “Next time you want to speed, wreck your own car.”

Usually with age comes wisdom. I never saw roads as racetracks ever again. And by the time I owned my own car, I had a daughter to take care of, so now I drive like an old lady, and am happy to do so.

One of the first people who wished me well after my car crash in Saudi Arabia was Roger Ebert. I’ve been fortunate to know him as a friend. And as one, I can say that there isn’t a malicious bone in his body. When he tweeted, “Friends don’t let jackasses drink and drive.” he was exactly right. Yes it may have been too soon, and of course it hurt Ryan’s friends and family. But the truth is, it would be a lot more irresponsible letting Ryan’s behavior slide that night, and Roger pointed that out. In many ways, I was in the same position he was. And I’d gladly stop anyone from repeating my gloriously moronic mistakes.

Ryan Dunn did some obscene things as a stuntman on his show, but of course that does not define him as a bad person, any more than my past dangerous driving shenanigans define me. But as someone who nearly got killed behind the wheel and in front of it, I can say this: If I had irresponsibly caused someone else’s death, and my own, I deserve to be called a jackass. But I beg you, never let it get that far.

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