Achievement Unlocked: A Cautionary Tale

This is the story of how I rolled my car and somehow didn’t die on the way to the last day of PyCon Au 2013. I’m writing this partly for catharsis (I think it helps emotionally to talk about events like this) and partly in the hope that my experience will remind others to be safe on the roads. If you find descriptions of physical and mental trauma distressing, you should probably stop reading now, but rest assured that I am basically OK.

Friday and Saturday had been very wintry, with snow forecast down to 100 and 200 metres respectively. I actually stayed in town on Friday night in case the roads towards the Huon Valley were impassable. Vinces Saddle – which I have to go over – is about 375 metres above sea level. The weather was set to clear up a bit on Sunday though (snow above 400 metres) and I’d gone home after the conference dinner on Saturday night.

Sunday morning was crisp and clear. Frost around, but sunny. It must have been between 8:15 and 8:30 when I crested Vinces Saddle and was on my way down a winding part of Huon Highway towards Sandfly.

Around one of the righthand bends, I hit ice. I lost traction and was suddenly swerving rather more to the right than I should have been. I managed to somehow correct back leftwards, avoiding smashing headfirst into the concrete barrier in the middle of the road. Unfortunately the leftwards correction went too far and my vehicle – a Mazda Bravo ute – was sliding sideways down the road, driver’s side first.

I distinctly recall looking out the window and thinking to myself, “oh bollocks”. Then the car rolled.

The roll is still a blur, but I’m pretty sure it was a single revolution, or maybe one and a half, as the car came to a rest off the left hand side of the road, driver’s side door upwards. The driver’s side window was gone, the pillar dented inwards, and I was hanging the wrong way up suspended by my seat belt.

Apparently I had the presence of mind to turn the ignition and headlights off, but mostly at that point I recall a somewhat panicked need to be out of that fucking cabin, because I couldn’t see what was coming down the road and I was worried someone else would hit the ice and careen into me.

So I checked that all my parts worked as best I could. Wiggle, wiggle, shake, turn, then undid the seat belt and dropped. Stood up, head and shoulders out the driver’s side window, and found a very helpful man – who had been driving ahead of me – had stopped and was calling the police and ambulance on his mobile. Meanwhile, a paramedic who was driving the other way home after her shift stopped and came over to help. In one of those classic Tasmanian moments it turned out I’d actually met her the week previous.

She did paramedical stuff (What day is it? What happened? How fast were you going? Did you pass out? Squeeze my hands please). I had the distinct sensation there was ground glass in my right eye, but she couldn’t see anything in there. I held my eyelid down, rolled my eye around, blinked a bit. Maybe it improved. Then I passed her my coat, backpack, probably my keys, then I turned around and somehow lifted myself up out through the window, relying mostly on arm strength.

Someone offered me a seat in a car before the ambulance arrived, but I realised I somehow couldn’t quite bend properly in the middle. Something hurt somewhere, so I just leant against the car.

Soon the ambulance and police arrived. I was checked out some more. The police borrowed my driver’s license for a while and performed a breathalyser test (0.00 or “Three Donuts” as he described it). My back was hurting, the adrenaline was wearing off. I began to sob, which is apparently what shock does to you. The assortment of emergency people were very calm and kind.

I was initially sitting up in the ambulance but at some point noticed a visual disturbance around the perimeter of the field of view of my right eye. Like poorly compressed MPEG video. The right eye was apparently slightly enlarged with respect to the left, and there was a lump on the back of my head (“hematoma” in medspeak). They lay me down in the stretcher, and my eye cleared up soon after. We got underway. Slowly. No point rolling the ambulance too, I guess.

The rest of the story is mostly a slow ambulance trip to the Emergency Department at the Royal Hobart Hospital, where I was checked out further. No spinal injuries, no serious head injuries (just some superficial cuts and bruises). They couldn’t find any glass in my eye either, although I’ve since still had some odd scraping sensations. Presumably my cornea is scratched. But the X-Ray machine did show up a crack in the tip of my right shoulder blade (apex of scapula in medspeak), which is why my back hurt then, and why it now hurts like hell to move between sitting and standing, and makes getting in and out of bed exceedingly complicated. Typing is difficult too – most of this blog post was pecked out on my phone, which is far slower but less strain than a real keyboard.

The cure for a cracked scapula is apparently stillness and painkillers for a week or two, which goes quite well with Buffy and Angel DVDs. Having been still and on painkillers for two and a half days now, I do actually seem to be improving, although I still lack sufficient use of my upper right arm to be able to cut up an eye fillet of pork with knife and fork. I also have to try to stretch a bit so my entire body doesn’t atrophy, which can be a bit of an interesting experience. I don’t think I’m done processing emotionally yet either. Every time I tell the “I rolled the car” story I feel like crying again. Apparently this is a normal response.

Lessons learned:

  • No matter how cool it might sound to say “rolled car and lived: achievement unlocked”, I do not recommend this experience to anyone, ever.
  • 70km/h, while well under the speed limit, is way too fast for an icy road.
  • I am developing an actual practical – as opposed to a merely theoretical or second-hand – understanding of the difficulties experienced by chronic pain sufferers. In my case though I have the luxury that my pain will go away.

5 thoughts on “Achievement Unlocked: A Cautionary Tale

  1. Get well soon!

    Make sure you don’t start doing things again too early, it’s always tempting when you’re bored to death after like the 4 days but you’ll regret it later.

  2. Reminds me of my elder brother sliding the car at <50km/h on wet or icy asphalt+tram tracks. It luckily ended up with a tree one meter within the non-driver side, but him walking out without a scratch.

  3. There is something practical to learn from physics:
    Kinetic energy is Ek = ½mv² meaning the kinetic energy is proportional to velocity squared, so if you go at 35 km/h instead of 70 before such a full stop, you only have a quarter of the energy hit your car/body (does not apply when falling off cliffs, where potential energy is relevant)

  4. Rather glad you’re all mostly okay. I can also recommend against testing the front and side airbags in a hire car – I’m pretty sure they work and didn’t need help from the yuppie in San Francisco a few years ago.

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