"Tell me exactly what kind of accident you're going to have," a safety engineer once said, "and I can design the perfect protection."
Ah, there's the rub. The chaotic instant of a serious car wreck can unleash a devil's brew of lethal energies--impact, abrasion, penetration--that no single design can withstand. One verity remains, however: All things being equal, a bigger, thicker fortress is almost always better.
This truth and others were ringing in my ear when, a few months ago, I purchased a limpid-blue 1990 Miata. It seemed a charmed transaction: The car had been owned solely by a Boeing engineer who now had a baby. Garaged and maintained, the car was a real pampered cream puff--and a steal at $2,500.
My dreams of a cut-rate sports car were realized. The Miata slipped through snarled traffic, narrow mountain roads and crowded parking lots like a gentle zephyr. It pitched and floated like my own personal ultralight on Sunday morning flings down Latigo Canyon Road. I loved the car, and yet there was a question always hanging in the air that blew through the Mazda's happy cockpit. How would a convertible weighing little more than 2,000 pounds fare, when push came to shove, in a world of vehicles often twice its size?
I found out when the phone rang one recent Sunday afternoon. It was my wife, Donna. "I am so sorry," she said. "I think your car is totaled." She sounded shaky.
"Where are you?" I asked. I jumped into the other car and headed down La Brea Avenue, not knowing what I would find.
As the car approached Washington Boulevard, my jaw dropped. Donna has always been one for understatement, but this was ridiculous. The conflagration of flashing emergency lights below was visible from half a mile; three firetrucks, two ambulances. A crowd had gathered, along with innumerable police cars.
Chewing the steering wheel, I inched through traffic toward the din, until at last I saw it: a tiny blue Miata sitting, convertible top down, in the middle of the intersection. The car was now shortened by two feet, the front end stove in to the wheels, air bag hanging from the driver's door, glass everywhere. Beside the curb lay the carcass of a huge black Chevy Blazer, crumpled and on its roof.
A police officer waved me past the crash, but I was beyond that. I aimed the car right through the barrier tape and pulled up behind a firetruck. An officer approached, but I strode past him toward the crumpled Miata. "That's my wife's car," I shouted back over my shoulder, running through the crowd.
I found her standing in her coat by the lamppost, all alone. Under her sun cap, she looked pretty white, but unhurt. We embraced. "I want a cigarette," she said. I fished one from the other car and lit it up; she took it in a shaky hand. "I'm OK," she said. "There was nothing I could do."
We both looked at the terrible scene. The intersection was full of police and shattered glass; two ambulance crews attended to the family in the turned-over Blazer. A man stepped out of the crowd. "They turned in front of you," he said. "Are you OK?"
The accident was a classic "T-bone," as common as they come. The other car had turned left without warning, leaving Donna no time to react. The Miata had struck it dead in the side. Someone else offered a tow; another man came forward with a cell phone in his hand: "I've got a lawyer here who says he can get you a fortune for this."
I sat Donna on a patch of lawn away from the crowd and headed over to look at the car. From my angle across the street, the Miata still looked perfect, sitting jauntily up on its new shocks. But out in the intersection, even from 10 feet away, I could feel the crackle of energy. There had been a great smoking coming-together of steel and rubber, leaving a carpet of glass and skid marks. The smell of sulfur from the flares hung in the air as the late-afternoon sun dipped over La Brea.
Yet there was also the unmistakable afterglow of a minor miracle, for what had happened was clearly the precise application of energy that this sturdy little car was built to withstand. It was the exact opposite for the unwieldy, top-heavy SUV. The tiny car, a low wedge moving at 40 miles per hour, had slipped under the Blazer's frame rail, then stayed put as the big truck, levered off its wheels, went skittering across the intersection on its crumpled roof. Both vehicles were totaled.
Despite the wreckage, no one was bloodied. The combination of air bags, seat belts and safety glass had saved everyone in the Blazer. But the Miata was more impressive. One could see the seat belt had held with no slippage or movement at the buckle; the driver's compartment was completely intact. Even down in the foot well, the pedals still stood up, perfectly straight. And up front one could see how the car's plastic nosepiece had absorbed its limit of energy, with its crush zones, air bladder and closed-cell foam flattened, at one spot, to the thinness of a paper cup.
Perhaps most importantly, crash sensors had deployed the air bag at the perfect instant, and in an attitude ideally suited to Donna's body, leaving her with slight abrasions on the wrists, nose and knee. Without it, I shuddered to think what could--what would--have happened.
Standing over the shattered Miata, I looked over at Donna, still sitting on the lawn, about due for another cigarette. A wave of intense affection washed over me for my wife, safe and unhurt, and for the tiny, sturdy car that sacrificed itself to save her life.
That evening she would wake from sleep with a cry and murmur again, through faraway tears, "I am so sorry about your little car." But, at that moment, standing out in the red/orange sunset along La Brea, it felt like another lucky, perfect L.A. day.