By Ian Smith
I’ve watched the security camera footage at least fifty times. I see the traffic racing past the familiar predawn landscape, the crosswalk warning lights begin to flash and then turn solid—yellow at first, and then red. A single car drifts to a stop. Seconds pass. Nothing seems to happen. But then headlights appear from the other direction, going full speed, and for what seems a single frame of the video I see my daughter in the crosswalk, silhouetted in the lights of the oncoming car.
The driver swerves. My daughter disappears from view. There is no sound to the video.
The car regains its lane and continues on. I breathe again because for a few seconds the image is too blurry to see what’s happening.
When it clears, I see my daughter throw her backpack away and run to her best friend on the ground, then try to lift her, try to drag her away from the looming cars and rumbling engines as the crosswalk lights start flashing the all-clear to the waiting traffic—giving them permission to bear down on her friend lying in the road. I know there is screaming and panic and her friend suddenly can’t walk but doesn’t understand why.
“Why am I in the street?” she keeps asking my daughter.
An eternity passes as they struggle alone together.
Then five seconds later an adult appears beside them. Then two more people hurry into view. The video ends.
The intersection is less than a mile from my house but it took ten minutes to get there because traffic was blocked. I parked nearby and hurried over on foot. As I approached the tangle of emergency vehicles, I could see my daughter on the far sidewalk—she was pale and shaky but still standing. I saw her friend, neck-braced and back-boarded, being loaded into an ambulance. Uniformed authorities moved around collecting witness statements, looking for evidence, making plans, relaying information to each other.
I hugged my daughter for as long as she wanted. With all the urgency swirling around us, I needed to just hold my child and try to absorb her anxiety. There was no hurry.
“Who did it?” I asked.
“They drove away.”
She struggled with parts of her written statement: she wasn’t sure what to put down on the line labeled “Name”—name of what? She’d forgotten what street we were standing on, and she couldn’t remember our home phone number.
But she was very clear on what had just happened. She was walking a step ahead of her friend in the crosswalk, was nearly halfway across the street, when she realized the oncoming car wasn’t going to stop. She looked back in order to shout a warning to her friend but the impact was already playing out in slow motion before her eyes. Her friend’s school supplies were in the air, flying away.
One step slower, I thought, and you would be in the ambulance too.
Then, after seeing the video, two steps slower and the driver may not have seen you soon enough to swerve.
Three steps slower and we’ve got two funerals.
No one in our house has slept well this week
At first I didn’t care so much about the driver because I was busy feeling relieved that my daughter was safe and her friend would recover. But by the next day I had reached another step in my emotional journey—cold, tense anger. In my imagination I projected a string of fiendish personas on the unknown driver. Was he a strung-out druggie too stoned to notice the lights, afraid to stop and help because he had a stolen gun in the glovebox and meth under the seat? Maybe he was an illegal immigrant who didn’t understand traffic signals and fled the accident in fear of deportation. Or maybe it was some vindictive monster seeking to hurt children, still out there lurking near school zones.
Once the video was released the day after the accident, my anger had a target. I drove the nearby neighborhoods looking for the vehicle. I stared at every white or silver or tan four-door sedan I passed on the road, looking for damage to the driver’s side. The police had working theories about who the driver might be, so I planned to complement their investigation with my own search efforts. But the driver turned himself in shortly after the video made the news.
When I heard he’d been arrested, I took some time to study his life. I stared at his mugshot. I found his family on social media. Based on Facebook posts and press reports I learned he lives a mile away from us. He has a job and a house in a nice neighborhood just a block from a friend of mine. He’s married. He has preteen daughters who likely attend the same middle school as my youngest son.
His life looks a lot like mine.
But because of five seconds of poor decision-making at 40 miles an hour, he’s facing up to five years in prison for the felony of leaving the scene of an injury accident that he caused.
Five seconds, three steps.
A day after he posted bond, as I pulled into a gas station near our neighborhood, I suddenly wondered what I would do if he happened to be there also, filling up the car. I imagined his wife staring glumly out the passenger window, stewing about a future turned inside out. I imagined his children in the back seat, powerless against the coming consequences of his actions. They may spend their teen years with their father in prison instead of at home with them—anonymously sharing his punishment, facing the collateral damage for his decisions. What will all of this do to them?
He wasn’t at the gas station. But as I drove home that night with a full tank, traveling through the same intersection where the accident happened, I was ready to take my next step forward. Past the anger I was able to find sympathy. Not for him, so much, but for the other children caught up in this mess—his own kids—the ones I don’t know.
Three steps slower and he’s killed my daughter and her best friend. But now I want to weep for all that’s happened to their lives.
Ian K. Smith is a business editor, information designer, and amateur oil painter. He recently started driving his children to school every day.