How A Fender Bender Made Me Complicit in a Biased System

Illustration by Wendell Barton. See more of his work at DesignbyDel

When I was 30, I had my first fender bender (not counting the time I was 17 and hit a parked car in the Burger King parking lot). I was leaving my house and heading to work. As I reached the first major intersection, I slowly inched out, checked for cars and saw a clear path, and began to turn right. At the last second, I noticed a car rushing from my left that had been hidden in a blind spot and stopped suddenly to let it pass. The car behind me, its driver also inching and looking left, thought that I had decided to turn, didn’t look and continued forward, bumping me very lightly on the back bumper. I barely felt it and almost kept going, but when I looked back I realized I had been hit.

It was a minor accident, with very minimal damage. Her car was fine, and my bumper had a small dent and some scratches. Overall, it was not a big deal, and considering that my car was over five years old at that point, it certainly wasn’t the first dent or scratch on it. But technically she was at fault, and she had insurance, and therefore it could be fixed.

Further, I was a little freaked out and not thinking very clearly, especially considering that my last incident happened as a teenage driver. So, without putting much thought into it, I immediately began the process of exchanging insurance information and calling the police to come and complete an official accident report. But as we sat there waiting for the cops, I began to realize how ridiculous it was to be doing things by the book.

In our city, as in many, cops do not respond quickly, even to urgent calls. We waited for more than an hour. This woman and her young son, probably 3 or 4 years old, patiently sat by their car.  After a while, we began to talk, and I learned that she was moving from our neighborhood and trying to get a few things out of their rented apartment on her day off.

As we talked, I realized how stupid it was to be standing there waiting for an official police report. Her son eventually peed on a tree so he wouldn’t go in his pants, and I called into work to report that I would be late. But we had already started the process, and I just kept hearing the voices in my head from my whole life about how important it was to call the cops after an accident. Considering that I live in Louisiana, a state that is said to have some of the highest insurance rates in the country precisely because of lawsuits and scams and under-regulated ambulance chasers, these voices can be particularly loud.

There was no reason to be suspicious of this woman – and in fact, I wasn’t. She seemed perfectly nice and was simply going about her daily life. Also, considering that she hit me from behind and there was no damage to her car, the possibility of her trying to assert anything beyond the actual series of events didn’t seem very plausible. So although I’ve always been taught that one can never be too cautious, and I know people can seem trustworthy but aren’t always, and I’ve heard nightmare stories about car accident scammers asserting the most unbelievable tales with no verifiable evidence, those concerns weren’t what drove me to continue waiting for the police and show up almost two hours late for work. I wasn’t even really worried about my car (a cheap, basic model sedan). Honestly, I would have been fine to continue driving it around for years with its slightly dented bumper. The thing is, I was just motivated to follow the rules. And my desire existed for no reason other than the fact that I had been conditioned my whole life to believe that I was doing the proper thing.

The potential consequences of my decision are far-reaching. The woman’s possible increased insurance rate (for an incident that was pretty low on the poor driving scale), any deductible she had to pay, and in general, the time out of her life that it took were all completely disproportionate to the tennis ball-sized dent in my bumper. From her appearance, manner of speech, age of car, etc., she was obviously working class, and while I haven’t done that well for myself financially, she was definitely no better off than me. Plus she had at least one dependent, while I have none. Those who study social class have argued that a main feature of being in the working poor is that one is in a constant state of being on edge. Any setback – including a hike in one’s insurance premium, or an unexpected expense with little to no savings or safety net – can mean the difference between everyday subsistence-level existence or being in actual poverty.  A minor car accident can be one of these make-or-break incidents, which is something I knew at the time. But it wasn’t until later that the real consequences of my actions began to settle in, and by then, I just hoped it would all be okay.

Ultimately, what really happened is that I got caught up in a classist, racist discourse that is part of the general cultural understanding of car accidents in our culture, which goes something like this: we can’t trust poor people, especially poor people of color, to not utilize a car accident as a way to bring small, short-term improvements to their lives.  (A more insidious version of this draws from the assumption that people in these categories are simply sneaky tricksters. And these two narratives don’t just coexist, but are dialectically related.) Because of this assumption, we are supposed to do things “by the book.” And even though my individual feelings – both in general, as well as at the moment of the accident – were not in line with this larger cultural understanding, when it came down to the actual decision, I went with the dominant track. I was playing it safe, for no reason other than I thought, “Better safe than sorry.” For me.

When I tried to talk through my regret with others, they all commended me for playing it safe. And while I don’t agree, I understand why they kept arguing to me that one can’t be careful enough, for it’s not even about trusting others to stick to their story, but trusting them to do so in a structure with so few opportunities. But this isn’t a story about trusting people. It’s a story about understanding that one’s actions – even when they are within the bounds of the rules, and when they are stated as the proper thing to do – can have consequences that are uneven. Because the rules, unfortunately, are made and followed by those who have a stake in following them. And those who have little to no stake in them will almost always lose. If they don’t, they just got lucky.

Change Your Answer features short reflections imagining how we could rewrite small but critical moments in our lives now that our perspective has shifted. For more about Change Your Answer, see the first essay in the series. What answers would you change in your own history? Check out our contributor guidelines and send us your Change Your Answer submission! Submissions should be no more than 1000 words and pasted into the body of the form.

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