November 18th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

A Test, and a Contrafactual

I didn't think it was interesting enough to interrupt what I was already writing for, but I did have an interesting test of my combat reflexes on Tuesday: I got hit by a car.

I walked up to Walgreens to refill a prescription. On my way out, I was looking up at the weather, trying to figure out if the rain would hold off long enough for me to walk a couple of blocks further up and back for another errand. Just as I looked down from the approaching storm front, I caught a glimpse of movement in my peripheral vision. I whipped my head around, and there was a gold-toned Chevy Cavalier up on the sidewalk, coming right at me at about 5 mi/hr. By the time I saw it, it was only about 12" from my legs.

I instantly calculated that there was no way I could leap or run out of the way in time. So instead, I leaned into it, so my weight would be over the hood. That guaranteed that when the bumper hit my calves just below the knee, instead of my being slammed down under the car (and getting both legs broken, plus whatever damage the car did as it ran over me), I was slammed up onto the hood. In the same motion, I twisted my upper body to start a sideways roll. So what happened was exactly what I planned. I spun far enough that I gently hit the trunk with one buttock, and used the momentum to flip my legs out 90° in front of me, which meant that when I rotated over the driver's side of the hood, my feet were pointed straight down. This let me land on my feet and leap backwards fast enough to not get hit by the driver's side mirror as it went by.

5 mi/hr = roughly 1.5 ft/sec. So that means that from the time I saw the car until the time it hit me was right around 600 or 700 milliseconds. If you think that it's impossible for a slow, sedentary 45 year old to react that fast and accurately in 600 milliseconds, if you think that I got away with only a couple of briefly-sore spots on my calves (not even bruises) by luck ... well, you've never seen me when threatened by physical danger. Ask kukla_tko42 about the drunk who stole my riding crop and used it to pick a fight with me. Or ask the_geoffrey about the first time the motorhome caught fire. Or go and look up my story about the armed robbery I almost didn't notice until it was over because I couldn't be bothered to put down my book to see what all the yelling in the restaurant was about.

So yeah, when physically in danger I demonstrate lightning-fast reaction times. And as I was chewing out the octogenarian driver, asking her bluntly if she had any business still driving, part of me was thanking my lucky stars that gangs of other kids spent about 7 years of my life trying to beat me up, 2 of those years trying to kill me. I wouldn't have survived the childhood I had if I hadn't developed combat reflexes before I was 9. And if I hadn't developed combat reflexes before I was 9 (or if, and thank the Gods she wasn't, but or if she had been driving an SUV instead of a compact car), I would have had both legs broken Tuesday.

But then about a block away, it occurred to me that this is a vivid example of the difficulty of proving a contra-factual. You see, what I was up at Walgreens doing was refilling my prescription for the drug that mitigates the symptoms of my anxiety disorder and recurring depression ... conditions related directly to my horror-show childhood. If I hadn't had to develop combat reflexes to reach my 10th birthday, I wouldn't have been on that sidewalk for her to hit me. It's a conundrum, all right. Cuts right to the heart of the question of, if I even could somehow magically go back and fix my childhood, would I really want to be someone other than the person I am now?
Brad @ Burning Man

Follow-Up: Gerontocracy and Some More Math

After I wrote about the car accident I deftly dodged on Tuesday, arkhamrefugee asked me what excuse they gave and how I felt about elderly people continuing to drive, and minidoc asked me if they had even gotten out of the car to explain themselves and check on me. Yes, they did stop (eventually), and yes they did get out of the car to check on me (which took even longer). Now, here's the funny thing.

What they said (the actual driver wouldn't say anything, her husband, the passenger, did all the talking) was that her shoes were wet (it had been raining earlier) and her foot slipped off the brake pedal. Again, let's assume they were going approximately 5 mi/hr, or 1.5 ft/sec, the whole time. From the edge of the sidewalk to my leg was about 6 feet. So from the point where she felt the tires hit the sidewalk to the point where she hit me, she had at least 3, maybe 4 seconds to either find the brake again, throw the car into park, pull the emergency brake, or (and here's the reprehensible part, that she didn't) at least hit the horn and give me a fighting chance to get out of the way. Not only did she not do any of these things, she still hadn't done them when the car came to a stop 5 or 6 feet later, when it slowly but steadily ran into a brick pillar on the front of the store.

What that says is that her reflexes are so bad that, when at all startled, she can't react to an unexpected hazard condition in less than 5 or 6 seconds. That is way too late. Which means that she is at least technically incompetent to be driving, because there are lots of things that can go wrong while driving that demand a lot faster response than that or you're going to kill some child, some other pedestrian, some motorist on the side of the road, some other driver, your passenger(s), and/or yourself. I think that someone who took that long to hit me, and yet hit me anyway, has no business driving.

I strongly considered calling the cops about it. But I knew that since I wasn't actually injured, the cops wouldn't do anything about it. Ironically, by not letting her break both my legs, I may have put the life of some kid that she's going to run over later at risk; after all, if I'd let her break my legs, she might have lost her license. There are laws in Missouri where you can lose your license if the courts decide that for medical reasons, you are no longer safe to drive. But those laws don't kick in until after your first serious accident.

The part of me that bends over backwards to be fair knows that there are plenty of people of all ages who have no business behind the wheel of a car, whose reflex times are just as bad as hers -- some 18 year old with a car full of friends distracting him, some 20 year old mother of 3 whose kids distract her at a bad time, some 25 year old yuppie who drops his cell phone on the highway and bends over to pick it up, some 40 year old security guard on a swing shift who's fighting to stay awake. And similarly, I've known mentally alert 80 year olds who could kick your butt in a judo match, whose driving is obviously not at issue here. "Unsafe to drive" really does have to be decided on a case by case basis.

But I will admit that a darker part of me was muttering all the way home about how much I'm going to hate the fact that, because of the huge numbers of people born between 1942 and 1960, for the next 20 years or so America is going to turn into a gerontocracy. The darker part of me wonders if my opposition to pharmaceutical research isn't also rooted at least in part in a grim wish that about half of the baby boomers, especially the better off half, would die a lot quicker than they're going to.