THE TWO cars in front of me crashed. I stood on the brake and stopped, missing them by a few inches. By the time I realised that I was safe, a large Honda HRV slammed into my rear bumper. I turned around to look at the driver. She looked right at me then drove away from the accident, taking her licence plate with her. Great, I thought, a hit-and-run. I sat motionless in the intersection until I was able to drive around the interlocked cars ahead of me and continue to the hospital.
Well, I thought to myself, trying to put a positive spin on things, my accident last year was worse. My pregnant wife, my young son, and I were coming home on Easter night. There was no one around us, so I entered the roundabout in Carcavelos near the train station. The next thing I remember was seeing the street slam into the roof of the car in a most irrational way. Every time the asphalt hit the roof of the car, the roof sank lower and lower above my head. I didn´t hear the screech from the other driver´s pathetic attempt to stop his car seconds before. I didn´t hear my wife screaming behind me.
We flipped over several times before the car stopped with its wheels in the air. The other car had slammed into our passenger´s side rear wheel with such force that we jerked sideways, hit the kerb, shattered the concrete, and rolled over the centre of the roundabout, onto the street on the other side.
When the car finally stopped, the roof of the car, now covered in countless tiny shards of broken glass, was about an inch from the top of my head. I was trapped upside down, or so I thought. My wife in the back called to me, stopping my screaming. She had not been wearing her seat belt and had been rocked around inside the car as a result. My son, safely strapped into his 5-point car seat, was crying hysterically from the shock of having been awoken so violently.
The crash and subsequent tumble made such a sound that a crowd of people appeared from the nearby apartment complex. They helped my wife and son out of the car, stepping over a sea of broken glass. When I finally came to my senses, I realised I was pinned by nothing more than my own seat belt. I braced myself, pressed the release button, and fell upward into the ceiling of shattered glass. I then crawled out the broken window, cutting open my hands and legs.
Outside, I met up with my wife and son, relieved that they were both unharmed. The three of us stood in the street and stared at our inverted and destroyed car. The other car, packed with young people, sat motionless in the street with its driver´s side front corner smashed in. They all got out together, wailing and shouting, but otherwise unharmed. I looked at them and a red rage boiled up inside me. I had to walk away to the centre of the roundabout to quiet my anger as blood trickled out of the countless cuts on my hands and legs.
The police came followed by the ambulances. I breathed into the breathalyser machine as did the other driver. I stared at him as he blew into the machine, he was a young man with short hair and a boy´s face. He was drunk, I was not. The police officer escorted him to the back of the police car and locked him in. He slouched in the seat, sobbing silently. The bombeiros all assembled and righted our car after several unsuccessful attempts. The side-impact air bags, now deflated, hung in the broken windows like ugly curtains. The chief police officer was quick to point out that most accidents that he sees are due to either excessive speed, alcohol, or both. He also said that our car itself had saved our lives. Had we been in a smaller car, like the one that hit us, we would have all been killed. It was a miracle no one was hurt.
The bombeiros covered the sea of glass with that white accident dust which lingered in the air for hours afterward. The crowd disbanded after the tow truck arrived and pulled our car away. My in-laws soon came to take us home.
The two images that remain in my mind are that of our wrecked car, upside down, helpless, and the face of the young man whose carelessness nearly killed us. The kerb in Carcavelos is still shattered with a small lake of broken glass remaining within the centre circle. I saw it there yesterday. It doesn´t feel like a year has gone by.
Ever since I emigrated here, I think about driving on a daily basis. I see the scars on the road, rubber burned into asphalt, mangled guard rails, new clouds of accident dust swirling around, holes blown into stone walls, horizontal sign posts and lampposts, and I think to myself that driving here is a disease. Driving in Portugal is a societal disease that has already claimed many, many victims, scarred many, many families. Every driver that overtakes another driver on a blind corner with oncoming traffic, every fresh coating of broken glass on the street, every person lying face down next to an overturned motorcycle is a symptom of this illness. They are all symptoms of a kind of driving madness that has infected all of us who drive here.
I pulled up to the hospital and parked my car. When I got out to see the damage, I stared in disbelief at my dented and cracked bumper. The madness was staring back at me.
• Dr. Zawasky can be contacted at the International Health Clinic in Cascais on 214 865 946 or email [email protected]