Have you ever had a near-death experience? And I don’t mean one of those hallucinatory experiences where you are walking down a tunnel towards what is usually described as some kind of ‘heavenly’ light. I mean, have you ever been in a situation where, fully conscious, you’re convinced that your life is going to end in the next five seconds? I have. It happened like this.
I’d passed my driving test only two weeks earlier, and I probably didn’t pay close enough attention to advice that a friend had given me when I told him the news.
“Now you can start learning to drive.”
I was working in Holland at the time, and I was driving a company car on a motorway near IJmuiden. It was late at night, and it was raining. I came to a left-hand bend on which the indicated maximum speed was 70km/hr. With the naive arrogance of youth, I entered the bend at 120km/hr. Oh dear, to my horror, the car started to slide outwards. Before I’d had time to take in what was happening, the car was scraping along the crash barrier.
“Shit!” I thought. “How am I going to explain this to the boss?”
The car was then catapulted violently into the middle of the carriageway, where it did several pirouettes (anticlockwise, if I remember correctly). I think that this is when I started to panic.
But worse was to come. The car must have rolled over something rough, because it suddenly went into an end-to-end somersault. And that is when I said to myself: “Dennis, you’re going to die.”
Two or three sideways rolls and four or five seconds later, the car came to rest, upside down, in the fast lane of the opposite carriageway. I was still conscious. And unhurt, apart from a large bruise on my upper arm and a minor cut on the back of my head. There is a small irony here: this happened in the days when seat belts were not a standard fitting, but the car I was driving did have an airline-style lap belt. That morning, I’d complained that it didn’t provide sufficient protection. On reflection, I would say that saving my life is sufficient enough.
However, I must have used up half a lifetime’s worth of good luck to get out alive. I’m convinced that if it were possible to replicate the event somehow, I’d die nine times out of ten (at least).
For a long time, perhaps twenty years, I shuddered every time that I recalled this experience. But not the near-death part. The first thing that I was aware of when the car stopped rolling was the smell of petrol. The tank was leaking badly, and, although I was unhurt, my foot was jammed behind the accelerator pedal. I used to wonder how I’d have coped had the petrol ignited. I think that this would have been really pushing my luck.
And in case you were wondering, I was fired for totalling the company’s car. But I did take one positive lesson from the experience. I took my friend’s advice: never be satisfied with mere competence; always look to improve; always strive to be the best you can be at whatever you do. Anything less is a compromise. As far as driving is concerned, I’m still learning, forty years later.