Surviving Asheville, N.C.’s Purgatory on Asphalt:  How I Crushed My Near Accident Occurrences and Became Saner in the Process

Call me crazy, but I’m rather attached to living. I’d rather not end up mangled in the midst of a mixture of metal and fiberglass melding at the end of high speed collision. I’d rather not get maimed as well, and now that I have kids, I feel especially obligated to stay alive.

However, living in Asheville, North Carolina makes this reasonable goal more difficult. I learned to drive in Wichita, Kansas, a flat city on a grid with a terrific road to car ratio, where traffic or an accident meant a few minutes delay. Then I moved to Asheville, North Carolina.

Asheville is basically the inverse of Wichita. The city is built around mountains, rivers, and the Biltmore Estate, with narrow roads placed where they fit, meaning there is no predictable or convenient pattern. Compounding the problem, Asheville is an established tourist destination with an exploding population. The tourists and new residents in addition to the over population and the now insufficient transportation system create what I like to call purgatory on asphalt.

Highway traffic goes from sixty-five miles per hour to a dead stop multiple times within a five miles stretch. Someone almost inevitably has an accident on one of the three north/south routes and the other two thoroughfares bog down. What should be a twenty minute drive doubles or triples in length. People invent swear words or plan how to assassinate strangers because suddenly bad driving warrants capital punishment. Those who are especially unfortunate or just generally less prepared to stop wreck their cars, savings, and even their lives or the lives of others.

Since I work in mobile auto detailing, I have to drive between jobs, and I can’t just drive during low traffic times. I inevitably get stuck driving in rush hour traffic. Since I’m paid by the job, not by the hour, dead time in traffic equals a loss in profit.

As a teenager, I wrecked a GMC Safari on a gravel road. That was almost a dozen years ago. Seven years ago, I got a parking ticket in Juneau, Alaska because I trusted a friend’s assurance that my parking space was legit. About six years ago, I was pulled over because the light over my tag was out. That’s the sum of my driving record. No insurance claims. No moving violations. I got the safe driver discount on my insurance until I turned twenty-eight and my rates dropped because my brain had fully developed.

Consequently, one can imagine my surprise and concern when I narrowly avoided four serious accidents in Asheville during 2015, most of which would have been my fault. In one, which was the fault of many people, I watched the person behind me almost rear-end me and get rear-ended herself. As I drove away with adrenaline-laced shakes, I came to a conclusion: I had to alter the way I drive. If I didn’t, someone was going to die.

Here are the changes I made:

  1. I increased the distance between myself and whatever car I was following. Most of the accidents I almost had would have involved someone getting rear-ended. Naturally, the easiest way to not rear-end someone is to stay farther away from their rear end.
  2. I slowed down, and I mean this more figuratively than literally. I still drive with the flow of traffic, but when I drive, my goal is no longer to drive from point A to point B as quickly as possible. My goal is to drive from point A to point B safely.
  3. I started braking sooner and more gradually. The best way to keep from getting rear-ended myself is to give the person behind me as much warning and opportunity to stop as possible.
  4. I began to work for the common good. It turns out not doing things like tail gating makes it easier for everyone else on the road. When one person doesn’t prioritize his drive over everyone else, people can change lanes and merge into traffic much easier, which in turn means less congestion for everyone. It’s the people who race to the head of the line and cut in who exacerbate traffic for everyone else.
  5. I pay especially close attention in high risk areas, primarily on Interstate 26 between Airport Road and Interstate 40 and from the merging of Patton Avenue and I-240 until I-240 meets Tunnel Road. When possible, I avoid these areas entirely.
  6. I began checking Asheville’s traffic online before I drive anywhere in the time around rush hour, so I can better anticipate or avoid congestion.

In 2015, I nearly had four accidents (three that would have been my fault). After implementing these changes in 2016, I had two near accidents (only one would have been my fault). In 2017, I didn’t have any. The same goes for 2018 and, thus far, 2019. I attribute the bulk of the difference to my revised driving mindset.

I’ve seen another result, as well, that goes beyond my safety. Asheville’s purgatory on asphalt bothers me less than it did before. I spend less time fuming in traffic as I try to finagle my way from point A to point B as swiftly as possible. Speed is no longer the priority—safety is—and it shows.

When I watch other impatient drivers plow through traffic, switching from lane to lane in a desperate attempt to arrive at their destination a couple minutes faster, I shake my head. It’s not worth it. Getting to my destination faster isn’t worth a ticket, a wrecked car, a higher insurance payment, a hospital stay, or a plot in the cemetery.

Stop and go traffic remains aggravating, and I still don’t make money in traffic. But at least now going from sixty-five mph to a standstill is inconvenient rather than dangerous because of how I’ve changed my driving.

In September of 2017, I was driving along interstate 26 when a car and semi-truck collided ahead of me. It was one of those freak accidents where two drivers in the right lane decide to move into the left lane a split second apart. The semi-truck driver moved into the left lane first and began to overtake. The car’s driver merged into occupied space a second later.

This two vehicle accident could have easily grown. I was so close that I didn’t even clearly see what happened. I heard a bang and saw black smoke. Thankfully, I was following at an appropriate distance and paying attention, and so was everyone else. What could have been a pileup remained a relatively small accident because I had changed how I drive.

My youngest son was born the next day.

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