I had just turned right off Port Road, a main arterial thoroughfare that runs west out of Adelaide. I was a hundred metres away from home when it happened, on a route I had travelled a thousand times before. That, as people keep telling me, is the way it so often goes.
As I neared the intersection before the final stretch to home, I slowed for the Give Way sign and checked for oncoming traffic. With one sweeping glance, I decided the way was clear. To this day, I swear it was clear.
I was wrong.
It had been one of those mornings. I had woken feeling tired. It was a workday and I had dragged myself out of bed to drop off some stuff to my ex, who had called time on our four-and-a-half years together. The split had been amicable, if not mutual, but seeing her was a reminder of everything I had lost. Afterwards, I had walked back to my car, my head foggy, my thoughts dream-like. As I gripped the steering wheel and turned the key in the ignition, I sighed heavily. I wanted to go home and climb back into bed.
In all other respects the drive home was routine. I remember slowing to check for oncoming traffic as I approached the final intersection and then, as I accelerated, for the briefest of moments, I looked away. My ancient Proton hatchback ran 10 kilometres below what was displayed on the speedometer, so I wasn’t moving quickly.
When I lifted my gaze, the 2017 Mazda 3 materialised. I remember the crunch – a vibrating sensation in my palms as steel collided with steel, and the force tearing off the front bumper. Each quiver charged up my arms before some equation of mass and velocity violently spun the car around. From deep in my throat came a short, cartoonish yell. My knee slammed against the plastic console and my head bent at an angle. Then everything went still.
I remember the crunch – a vibrating sensation in my palms as steel collided with steel, and the force tearing off the front bumper.
The whole thing was over in seconds. My car had come to a stop in the centre of three lanes. The first thing my eyes focused on was the bank of cars forming a line in front of me, waiting and probably wondering if I was hurt.
I wasn’t. I knew that straight away. I never even lost consciousness.
I got out immediately and looked across to the gunmetal grey Mazda sedan. My car had left a gash in the engine panel on the driver’s side and sent the vehicle up over the gutter. I moved my lanky six-foot frame to the driver’s door and crouched to look in the window. The airbags had fired, and inside I could see the faint outline of a woman. My fingers curled around the door handle and, swallowing a growing sense of panic, I pulled it open with a tug.
‘Hello?’ I said gently.
Nothing else seemed to exist in that moment. The only two people in the world were me and the female driver. I knelt on the road beside the open door so that my eyes would be level with hers. I could see her flank curled into the driver’s seat, the details of her form obscured by the airbag. For a moment I thought the worst. I tried again.
There came a slight mumble and the woman’s body began to shake. She straightened herself in the seat. She was dressed in business-casual, presumably on her way to work. When she looked over at me, she answered with more noise than words.
‘You’ve been in a car accident,’ I said. ‘I’m the other driver. Are you okay?’
‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘I’m fine. Just the airbags.’ There was a pause before out tumbled the words: ‘I’m pregnant.’
Something in my chest sank. I asked whether she could feel her legs; she said she could. I asked her to wiggle her toes, and she did. Behind me another driver had pulled over to help. He was a tall man with a square jaw in an orange puffer vest.
‘Everyone okay?’ he asked.
I told him we were but suggested he call an ambulance. Along with another passer-by who had been waiting for a bus, the man helped me move my car off the road. By the time we got back to the other driver, she had climbed out of her vehicle. She wore an electric blue shirt underneath her blazer and her ash-blond hair was tied back. A wry smile spread across her face as she quickly processed what had just happened to her.
‘This is the second time in six months,’ she said.
The paramedics arrived first, then the fire department, then the cops. The medics gave the woman a check-up and the guys in full fire gear asked if anyone needed to be cut out. When I told them no-one did, they seemed disappointed. Instead, they sprinkled a kitty-litter-like substance around my car.
The cop who had been called to the scene was middle-aged with a salt-and-pepper mop of hair, big round glasses and a handlebar moustache. He took statements from the woman, the man in the orange puffer jacket and me, then ordered the cars towed to the nearest yard. ‘That will be $300,’ he said. Then he fined me $400 for failing to give way.
I noticed the weather then. It was cold, with a biting sort of chill that worked its way into your bones. And it had started to drizzle.
‘You think she’ll be alright?’ I asked the cop, gesturing towards the ambulance, into which the female driver had disappeared.
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘They said she’s fine, and so is the baby. They’re just going to take her to hospital for observation. Just in case.’
I repeated the words just in case in my mind and there was a moment before either of us spoke again.
‘I know this sounds crazy,’ I said, ‘and it may not look like it. But I’m a careful person.’
Seconds ticked by as we stared in silence at the ambulance. Then came the $25,000 question: ‘Do you have insurance?’
The cop asked this in a hopeful tone and what followed was a conversation I was to have many times over the next year. No, I would say, I didn’t have insurance. And, yes, the accident had been bad, though no-one had been hurt. Yeah, it was my fault. And no, I didn’t have a problem making things right by paying compensation. In fact, I wanted to make it right.
Then came the $25,000 question: ‘Do you have insurance?’
And sure, I would tell them, not having insurance beyond compulsory third-party was foolish, though it is hard to explain exactly why I didn’t without it sounding like an excuse. My life trajectory had followed a familiar path to others within my age bracket. I had moved out of home at 22 while at university and graduated in 2014 into a flat job market. I spent 18 months drawing a social security benefit before I started bringing in enough work as a freelance journalist to support myself. For much of my career I’ve focused on writing about deindustrialisation and precarious work because I am living it.
Like others of my generation, I had no real assets to speak of and certainly fewer than my parents had at my age. While I might have had a vague awareness that a suite of insurance products was available to protect what little I did own, the idea of seeking them out was totally removed from my lived experience. Health insurance? Ambo cover? Home and contents? Asset protections are nice for those who can afford them, but for many years I had no assets to protect and certainly not enough income to cover the regular payments. When I finally could afford insurance, it just never occurred to me as something to be investigated.
Saying that out loud, let alone putting it to paper, is hard and embarrassing. I’m supposed to be a reporter, after all. In the popular imagination, I am in the business of knowing – a smart guy, a hired geek. People ask me all the time: did I ever think about the risk? To be honest, the answer is no. I’d never had more than compulsory third-party insurance, and until now, I’d never been in an accident. Of course, the process of taking out insurance would have been simple, if the very notion that it should have been a priority was there to begin with.
Standing on the side of Port Road in the drizzle, I tallied up my income against what I paid in rent and groceries each month. I made my best guess about how much the accident would end up costing me. Like anyone who has unexpectedly lost their job or become seriously ill, had their house burn down or car break down, faced a crushing lawsuit, watched their business collapse or suffered something more cruel – in that moment I understood all too well that I was fucked.
After those first few weeks passed, the effect on me was noticeable. Around that time, a friend from Alice Springs called to see how I was doing. She was worried about me and remarked that I hadn’t seemed myself lately. I told her I was fine, but when she pushed the issue the conversation quickly turned to dollars and cents.
‘It’s okay,’ my friend reassured me, and in solidarity went on to divulge her own list of debts. Before we ended the conversation, she told me something I’ll never forget: ‘Everything will be alright. You’ll go into debt, but that’s okay. It’s just money.’