AutoMatters: The Scare of My Life

Mangled crash vehicles – 2012 SEMA Show

By Jan Wagner

Just after midnight on Saturday, while driving on the freeway, I had the scare of my life. I have absolutely no doubt that I came within a few seconds of having a terrible, high-speed, life-ending crash. Unlike in the thought-provoking new science fiction movie entitled “Transcendence” (spoiler alert), where efforts are made to transfer a dying man’s consciousness into a sophisticated computer system, there would have been no coming back from such an accident. I am sharing my experience with you in the sincere hope that this knowledge might someday save your life.

I was driving home to San Diego in my Prius after leaving Anaheim, where I had spent a long, full day covering WonderCon. I make this drive often, since the Anaheim Convention Center is very close to Disneyland and California Adventure, for which I have a well-used annual passport.

Conditions were excellent. Traffic was light but steady, so my low-beam headlights were on. That sharply limited how far down the freeway I could see. My cruise control was set at about the speed limit (65 mph). Unlike in the morning when a lot of the traffic that passed me was moving at well over the speed limit, this evening the vehicles that passed me were not doing so with excessive speed. I was nearly home.

Mangled crash vehicles – 2012 SEMA Show

Suddenly I found myself in serious, imminent danger. I was in the second lane from the right on a four-lane stretch of freeway. Ahead of me and to my right I remember seeing flashing yellow lights – perhaps vehicle hazard lights, in the direction of the shoulder.

Then I saw dark silhouettes appear between those flashing yellow lights and my lane on the freeway. A moment later I realized that those silhouettes were of debris and people, blocking the road. The people, at great risk to themselves, were frantically waving their arms as they stood in the darkness, trying to get my attention and that of other oncoming drivers.

Mangled crash vehicles – 2012 SEMA Show

Next I started to see why they were waving so urgently. Directly ahead of me another silhouette was beginning to emerge from the darkness. It looked like an SUV without its lights on, broadside and blocking my lane – and I was literally seconds away from crashing into it at freeway speed!

Within seconds I needed to assess the situation that was emerging from the darkness in front of me, make critical decisions and then take decisive evasive action. I acted instinctively, probably due to my many years of competing in motorsports (autocross).

I could not move into the right lane. That was blocked by people, debris and perhaps other vehicles.

If I tried to make a panic stop, even if I were successful at doing so, there would be a strong likelihood of my being rear-ended by others.

In the lane to my left a vehicle was on the verge of passing me. It was not quite beside me yet, so I had one viable option: try to make an emergency lane change to my left, in front of that vehicle.

Unable to safely look away even for an instant to find the button for my car’s four-way emergency flashers, I rapidly switched my left turn signal on and off again repeatedly, to notify the driver of my intentions. Fortunately he left me enough room to cut in front of him and we both safely drove past the accident scene.

It all happened so quickly and so unexpectedly that I can barely believe what I saw in front of me that night, and what almost happened to me. I do not know whether others who were behind me were as fortunate. Hopefully the California Highway Patrol arrived soon thereafter to set up flares and safely direct traffic.

I am reminded of something that I recently read in the press materials for Distracted Driving Awareness Month (April). According to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and the California Office of Traffic Safety, “Just three seconds of texting while driving at 65 mph is equal to driving 100 yards, or the length of a football field, blindfolded.” If I had been distracted, I could have been killed.

Likewise, if the driver to my left had been speeding excessively, I would not have had enough time to safely make my necessary emergency lane change. He would likely have sped beside me and I would have crashed.

I would like to read your comments and learn about your experiences. Please write to me at


Copyright © 2014 by Jan Wagner – #329