The Danger of Neutral

Feb 1, 2010

When I was young, maybe about 9 or 10, my aunt’s sister was killed by her car.  From what I recall with my childhood memory, she had pulled her vehicle up to her mailbox and gotten out to get her mail. Not realizing it, though, her car was in neutral and it rolled backwards, knocking her down and trapping her underneath. Her little boy, who was about 5 at the time, got off the school bus and found her there.

I have never forgotten that event. Honestly, how could I? It’s now been about 25 years since she passed away and I can truly say there has not been a single time in all those years where, when I hear about the ‘neutral’ gear of a car, or see the ‘N’ on my control panel, that I don’t think of her. I am acutely and painfully aware of just how dangerous ‘neutral’ can be.

Having said that, during the week before Christmas, Jordan and I went to have lunch with Rob at work. Because of the location of his office, when I needed to get money out of the bank afterwards, I went to a branch closer to his office – and further from our home – than the one I usually frequent.

I drove to the drive-through location, behind the bank, and paused for a moment before realizing the line was just too long. I thought that, perhaps, I’d have better luck if I actually went into the bank.

I drove to the front of the building and immediately saw a parking spot. As I was pulling up to the space, I happened to notice the driver of the car next to my space get out of her car and begin walking into the branch.

As I pulled in, though, the car next to me began to reverse out of its spot. I jerked my head. I was certain I’d seen the driver get out of the car. Quickly, I realized I hadn’t been mistaken. There was no one in the driver’s seat.

I slammed on my horn, hitting it over and over again. Everything happened in a matter of seconds, but I remember praying no one would step behind that car. I glanced behind me. The owner of the car was rushing back to her vehicle and all the cars around had stopped completely, probably wondering what was going on.

I made sure my own car was in ‘park’ and told Jordan to remain in the car. I got out and rushed over to the woman, who was now frantically trying to get into her driver’s side door as it rolled. Immediately, I could tell she was not the type of person who handled a crisis well. I grabbed the keys from her and ran around the front of the car, opening the passenger door and jumping into her vehicle. It actually took a moment to get that car out of neutral. The gear shift appeared to be stuck. After a few seconds, though, I had it in ‘park’ and breathed a sigh of relief.

The owner of the car was a basket case – and that’s putting it mildly. By this time, a crowd had formed and I left them to deal with her as I went to get Jordan out of the car and finally head into the bank. As we were making our way to the front entrance, though, I realized that in order to get there, we had to walk right past the parking space where the car had been parked. In fact, had the car still been in that spot, we would have walked right behind it.

And then, I realized, had we gotten into our spot just a few moments earlier, stepped out of our car just a little bit sooner, we would have been behind that car as it started to roll.

I suddenly felt sick to my stomach.

Had I not first gone to the drive-through area and paused slightly, we would have been behind that car. If Jordan had not taken so long getting her seatbelt on when we left Rob’s office, thus keeping me from driving away immediately, we would have been right behind that car. Or, if I didn’t have to wait a moment for Rob to let me into his locked office building, thus beginning our lunch with him a little bit later, we would have been right behind that car.

And, hadn’t I been irritated by all of those things initially? Hadn’t I been frustrated that Jordan couldn’t put her seatbelt on faster? I mean, she’s been doing it by herself for at least 4 years now. Hadn’t I wondered what was so secret in Rob’s office building that they have to keep the doors locked?

And yet, if any of those things hadn’t occurred exactly the way they did, my daughter and I would have been directly behind that rolling vehicle.

How often in our everyday life are we annoyed by the small “inconveniences” which, at the time, don’t seem quite so minute? You know, the person in the 10 item or less line who has 16 items . . . the receptionist at the doctor’s office who’s on the phone when you want to check out . . . the old guy in the car in front of you who can’t seem to drive more than 15 miles an hour? We find these delays to be so bothersome and yet, what if they are preventing us from some harm down the road?

I was just watching “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” last weekend and in it, the woman he loves is hit by a car. Benjamin takes you through a series of events that, had they not occurred the way they had (the taxi driver not stopping for coffee, his girlfriend not pausing to wait for a friend, a delivery truck not backing up at that moment) she would have never been hit at all. If only one small event had changed, the circumstances, which drastically changed her life, would have been completely different.

I can’t promise that from this point on, I’ll never be frustrated when I have to wait in a super-long line at the store or when a friend is late to meet me for dinner or when a meeting runs later than promised. But I can say that that rolling car was a wake-up call for me – a reminder that everything happens for a reason.

And, a realization that it only takes one small thing to go wrong- and in a split second, everything you hold dear can be lost forever.

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