Shifting Gears

Once, when driving I was nearly killed not by another car, but by a runaway wheel.

It was drawing toward evening and my wife and I had given a lift to friends, a young couple who lived in Northcote, a Melbourne suburb. Traffic was light. A car approached and suddenly lurched. A grey shape detached itself and spun across the road. I hit the brake and seconds before it hit my car I saw the object was a car wheel attached to a broken tie rod. The wheel hit my bumper bar, spun up the bonnet and across the windshield before rolling off the top of the roof. If the rod had smashed the screen, either Sonia or I would have been killed. I pulled aside and my friend fled into the bushes where he vomited, watched by his remarkably calm wife.

The chance of being hit by a runaway wheel is millions to one. Ten years later however I was involved in a similarly bizarre incident.

Six months before, I had bought a second-hand Rover. This was a large and luxurious model with walnut dashboard and deeply comfortable leather seats. On its release the car, which became the Queen Mother’s favorite, was dubbed ‘The Dowager’s Dream’. One day, feeling very proud of my possession I was driving to work and had just crossed some railway lines when there was a loud crash and the car collapsed. A sandy haired, freckled face kid standing on the pavement shouted in delight, ‘Hey Mister, the wheels have just fallen off your car!’ Sure enough, the back wheels joined by their tie rod had rolled away and the heavy thump then sound of screeching metal was caused by the back of the car hitting the road and being dragged down the tarmac.

Cars can tell us a great deal about human nature. I had a friend who was the quietest and most gentle soul you could imagine. One day, however he gave me a lift and was instantly transformed into a wild beast, driving like a maniac and abusing everyone else on the road. Of course, few of us ever admit just how bad we are at driving.

When I was 19, I hitchhiked around Tasmania for a fortnight. The day I set forth, the island was engulfed in bushfires. A truck driver outside Devonport picked me up and we drove down to Hobart past scenes of devastation. I remember seeing wooden light poles glowing red at the base like cigarettes. As we rounded one corner, we saw fire race over the hill and reach a tall pile of kiln dried timber that exploded in a sheet of flames. It was night when we reached Hobart and you could see sparks blowing across the Derwent River setting off fires in the darkened suburbs.

People react in strange ways to tragedy. One elderly lady was told to flee her home right away. As soon as she did, the man who claimed to be a Country Fire Authority officer brought up a truck and robbed her of all her possessions. He was of course a miserable exception to the many brave and selfless men and women who helped at that time.

But I was talking about cars and that night as the fire was being brought under control, the truckie and I went down to Hobart for a meal. After dinner, we decided to hitchhike back to the truck where we would sleep that night. A car roared up and three hoons called to us to join them. With some misgivings we did and the car took off like a rocket. An elderly lady was just pulling out of the curb when we rushed down on her with blazing horn and screaming tires. With a violent wrench on the wheel, we narrowly missed her and hurtled on. ‘Jees, did you see that?’ our driver appealed. ‘Some of these old bats should have their licenses lifted!’

There’s so many other stories concerning cars that I could tell. The night we were seconds from being killed when a driver taking us in his Merc. to the KL Airport fell asleep at the wheel at 120kmphs is just one example.

But before leaving the subject of cars and their effect on humans, let me recount an unusual example of road rage.

One evening, I was driving up Commercial Road to Malvern where my wife worked, when I encountered a young man standing out in the traffic abusing passing drivers. I shook my head at him as I passed to which he responded by kicking the side of my car. I felt enraged and parking my car, got out to punch him. This is very atypical of my normal self. I loathe confrontation and violence. When I reached him however, I felt sorry for him. It would have been so easy to be brutal as he appeared totally defenseless but there was also a sadness about the youth (who was probably on drugs) that touched me. So I simply said, ’You’re mad mate’ and getting back into my car, drove away. At the next set of traffic lights a car pulled up beside me and a tough-looking fellow gestured he wanted to talk. This is turning into a very bad evening, I reflected as I reluctantly rolled down my window. ‘I was driving behind you and saw what that young creep did to your car,’ he began. ‘And I saw how you didn’t hit him. ‘Yes,’ I admitted, wondering where this was going. ‘Anyway, I thought what he did was wrong so I got out and thumped him for you.’

I drove on, as you might imagine, with mixed emotions!

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