I was 17 years old the first time I had a car crash. I had only been driving about a year and a half and I had a 1996 Mazda Protege that had been my stepmothers, then my older brothers, and finally mine! At 17, having a car brings you a feeling of freedom and responsibility! It had no A/C, something that is NOT a luxury in the sweltering heat of Florida.
I was driving to work at Muvico, a now-defunct movie theater for my $6/an hour, in full uniform, going forward (I never go “straight”) on Nebraska Ave, had a clear steady green, I was going maybe a MPH over the speed limit (I know, I’m such a bad boy) and then BAM! A grayish SUV is making a left turn in front of me. I had no time to stop, and T-boned them!
At 17, this was very scary and I called my Mom who rushed to get there, but it felt like hours.
The people in the other car were OK, I was OK, but the car was gone. My mother said: “The bumper is torn into pieces, but you are not. So the bumper did it’s job.”
The people in the other accident stated the accident was my fault, but the police at scene disagreed, citing them for failure to yield on a left turn for right of way. The driver of the other car was angry and said she would dispute it. It had to be the 17-year-olds fault, right?
Fast forward to 2021…
I’ve now been driving for 16 years and had no accidents since that fateful day. Until August 20th, when I would cross through another intersection and T-bone another grayish SUV.
This time, though, it was my fault. 100% my fault.
I don’t know what happened. I’m a good driver and I pay very close attention, but I’ve certainly had close calls in my time. As I was going, in the far left lane, I was to be the first in line at a traffic light. It went from green to red as I traveling along, but for some reason, and I still don’t know why…I didn’t see the red light.
I blew through the red light and by the time I realized it, it was too late.
I didn’t even have time to hit the brake before plowing into the driver backseat of the car, next thing I saw was an airbag and the slamming of the grayish SUV as it rolled over on its side, hitting the road. People around me panicked and many stopped, desperately trying to get the passengers out of the other vehicle.
I panicked, ran out of my car to see if I could provide aide, saw people helping, and decided to use that time to call 911.
“I caused an accident, I caused a rollover. Please. Send help!”
The fire department responded quickly and got the people out of the car. They stood up. They looked scared but they looked physically okay.
The police came, of course. I told them what happened. “I got lost in the song and I ran the red light.”
I know you’re never supposed to admit fault, right? I thought about the woman I hit when I was 17, in that case, her fault for not yielding to right away on a left turn. She never owned the harm she caused.
She probably was thinking about her insurance rates and the financial impact of a citation.
I would eventually think about those things, too, but first, I was more concerned about the people I harmed.
Once both the other driver, their passenger, and myself were met with paramedics, and each of us declined a hospital visit, I walked up to them. I didn’t know what to expect and there was nothing I could do in that moment.
“I know this probably means nothing right now, but I want to tell you how terribly sorry I am I caused this.”
The woman looked at me and said: “You are standing in one piece talking to us, both in one piece, that’s all I care about right now.”
It was a horrific scene.
The police cited me $261 for failure to stop at a steady red and we did the exchange of information. I would talk to them one more time as we wanted me the wrecker to come.
“Do you have a way to get to your destination?”
I was willing to offer a Lyft ride if need be. They declined but thanked me.
I caused harm.
Yes, it was an accident. We can cause harm on accident and it being an accident doesn’t exonerate us. It was a trash feeling, I felt like absolute scum.
I’m sure my insurer isn’t happy with me admitting fault to the point of it being on the police report that I admitted fault, but I don’t care about them. Will I have sanctions because of this? Yes, I’m sure my insurance will go up. But I could not put my head on the pillow of my bed knowing I caused harm to people if I had not owned it.
I’m not writing this to point out what an amazing, accountable wonderful person I am and I have certainly denied, deflected, or minimized harm I’ve caused in the past (we all have — it’s up to you if you want to admit it or not, but I guarantee you have).
The point of this is, I’ve thought more and more since the accident how restorative justice could apply to this situation versus the punitive structure we have today.
In her work Leaving Evidence, Mia Mingus, a transformative justice practitioner, says something to the effort of: “What if accountability wasn’t scary? It may never be easy or comfortable, but what if it wasn’t scary…what if it wasn’t something we ran from, but toward?”
Maybe the woman who caused my crash by jumping into the right of way that day when I was 17 would have wanted to own the harm if she knew her livelihood was not at risk.
Points on your license, the cost of the citation, the increase of insurance premium, the cost of the deductible. Everything about causing an accident is punitive.
Some people might say, “well, it should be punitive! Otherwise, people will just drive recklessly!”
There is an average of 6 million car accidents annually in the United States.
Some of them are more serious than others, of course.
Do you know what’s motivating me to drive safer? That first minute after the crash when I did not know whether or not the people in the other car were OK. When I did not know if they were badly hurt, or if their was a baby in the backseat, or if someone wasn’t going to make it.
Caring about human beings safety was more important to me than the possibility of a fine.
Now, luckily for me, I’m in a position where $261 is steep, and it sucks, but it’s not suffocating. If I had caused this accident in 2017 when I was living paycheck to paycheck still, this would have been more devastating. Many Americans struggle to make ends meet, so a traffic fine is a serious detriment, but I’m not so sure it’s a deterrent in and of itself.
Nonetheless, the system was in place when I caused this harm. 16 years of really careful driving and I still caused a crash. I never thought I would run a red light, but I did.
But what is the $261 going to do for the victims of my harm?
Nothing. The State of Florida will gain from my poor decision. My insurance company will make up for the loss they have due to my high payout by jacking up my rates, despite years of a clean record. I luckily have enough insurance coverage to pay for the cost of their vehicle (and hopefully, they’re able to get a really good car out of it), but what is restorative about this for anyone?
Like I said before, if I was 17, this fine would be unbearable. When I was 17, I also had significantly less coverage, relying solely on the state minimum. I’ve only recently, in the last three years, found a job that pays enough for me to have savings. I can afford emergencies now, but that wasn’t true three years ago or anytime before. Many people are in this same situation and I could wind up back there again if anything ever goes South with my job, it’s just a reality.
What if instead of citation to the state of Florida, my consequences were related to the harm I caused?
I don’t have the perfect answers, but what if the focus wasn’t on punishing me?
Driver education courses rooted in teaching me the dangers of running a red light. A victim impact panel where I could meet victims similar to mine of varying outcomes, from loved ones who lost someone to a red light runner, to those who have permanent injuries, to those who walked away unscathed.
What if the focus on what happens was I worked with a restorative justice coordinator who identified my victim's needs forward. I took away their mode of transportation in a City where you need a car to get around. What if I worked with my community, my loved ones, to coordinate how they will get to and from the grocery store, school, work, or wherever, until they got a car. In the meantime, we would learn about one another and see each other as more than those involved in an accident. What if instead of focusing on how much insurance was going to uprate me and how I’m going to pay the fine to the State, I could focus on crowdfunding in my network on paying for their Uber or Lyfts.
I mentioned I’m no longer paycheck to paycheck, but I’m not rich. What if there was a community victim compensation fund I could agree to pay into on a payment plan. The fund would front-pay my victims for their needs, and I would pay $50 a month (or whatever is affordable to me at the time) into the fund to pay it back for future victims. I would rather pay $50 a month for a year, equaling $600, than pay one fine to the state of $261 as long as I knew the money was going into a fund to repair harm versus the state’s revenue.
What if for my victims, part of their restoration work, aside from the above mutual aid efforts described, they were provided, at no cost, an opportunity to go to support group meetings and/or therapy to deal with the possible PTSD they have from the crash? What if society was set up so instead of only focusing on the monetary damages I caused, someone divorced from the situation was able to provide them with emotional care as well? I hope they have a strong network of support, of course, and since I am their harm caused (even if by accident), I am not the best candidate to provide that support.
I don’t have all the answers.
I’m blessed that both of them walked away physically okay. I’m blessed I walked away with only a minor injury to my right wrist. I know I have nightmares about the accident and I’m full of guilt, for sure. I have imagined a thousand scenarios. What if a pedestrian had been in that crosswalk? Or nearby it and got hit in the car’s flinging? What if other cars had crashed because of my crash?
I think about that everyday.
The police’s involvement in the accident was useless. Anyone could tell I was at fault, and I admitted it on the 911 call anyway. They were there to give me my citation and make sure I pay for my mistake. And I will. But it won’t ever really feel like justice.
I’ll think about the people I crashed into for the rest of my life, I’m sure, and sadly, I’ll always be a story for them to recount their whole lives. I hate that I have to be the cause of any point of trauma, but this isn’t the first time I’ve caused trauma or harm in my life, accidentally or on purpose, and it probably won’t be the last time.
16 years of safe driving, it’s going to take me awhile before I trust myself behind the wheel again, but that’s my own personal dilemma to deal with. I couldn't be more grateful that no one was severely injured or worse. Is my car totaled? Yeah, she’s gone. Is it inconvenient? Yeah, it really is. I can’t get around my City without a car.
I also think about people like me three years ago, when I was barely getting by, how devastating this would have been. My current economic status is the only thing making this situation bearable because I’m able to order groceries for a few weeks to be delivered. Not everyone is able to do this and I wouldn’t have been either three years ago. Three years ago or before, I’d have had to forego two weeks of groceries to pay the ticket. Someone else is in that situation right now and you know what society will say to them?
Shouldn’t have caused an accident.
It’s sad how much of our society’s response to causing harm is “grab a time machine and undo it.”
I’m glad I ran toward accountability, even though I really don’t think this system is set up very well to hold me accountable for this, nor is our culture.
Things to ponder, truly. What are your thoughts in the comment? How could restorative justice work for the common, everyday harms (even ones by accident)?