For some reason, this is a hard post for me to write…but here goes.
Last July, a story broke about a woman’s car slamming into a London Costco, killing a 6-year-old girl and her newborn sister, and injuring their mother and other sister. Charges were laid against Ruth Berger, the driver of the car, and Back in June, she was convicted of dangerous driving. She says her shoe got stuck under the brake.
When this happened, it felt like everyone was vilifying this poor woman, wanting her to pay dearly. I understand people were deeply affected by the tragedy of losing 2 children, one whose life hadn’t even began. But I wasn’t ready to pick up my own pitchfork, and here’s why. My own family could have been living Ruth Berger’s horror.
Many years ago, I wrote about a car accident that happened many years before that. Ug. Seeing my writing from back then makes me want to be sucked into an embarrassment vortex. But stupid wording aside, the accident did happen like that. It sounds like something straight out of a Steven King movie, but that description is the way it happened. Not only that, but when the mechanics tried to have a look at it and fired it up, it also went nuts. They wrote it off, putting it down to “pedal error”, but if that was supposed to translate to my dad making a pedal error, they were completely incorrect.
I have thought a lot about that night. I went with my date at the time to a movie. It was a stupid movie, but everybody wanted to go see it, from seniors to kids. I think it was called “Jack”. It was that Robin Williams movie where the kid is growing up too fast, and looks like a man, but he’s actually a little boy.
Anyway, my point is the theatre was packed. At the end of it, we headed out of the theatre to meet my parents. For some reason, my date said “Let’s try and be first.” So, we raced out of the theatre. He got his wish, we were first. We got to my parents’ waiting van. We got in, I was starting to buckle up, mom had turned around and said, “How was the movie?” As she said those words, my dad started the car…and that’s when everything went mad. The car revved, went straight into reverse, I lost grip on my seat belt and hit the floor. My memories are probably blurred by 19 years of distance, but I remember talk of our car hitting a post, knocking it down or bending it, doing something to its concrete base, then slowing down, and then speeding up and heading for the TV station. I think we smashed some glass on the window of a car parts store. Then, without any human intervention, the car came to a stop. This all happened in a few seconds. My mom thinks that if the car hadn’t stopped on its own, and had kept speeding up, by the time we made contact with the TV station…it would not have ended well for us.
From my point of view, this was what it was like. The car revved, stones flew and were hitting the side of the van, I hit the floor, mom was screaming “stop it, stop it, get it stopped get it stopped.” There was some smashing of glass, I was still trying to figure out how I had ended up on the floor, and wondering what kind of loose objects could hit me…and it was all over, and dad said something like “the transmission…just…locked!” My date said that while we were on the floor, he looked up and saw nothing but flying numbers on the dashboard.
A crowd had started to gather around our van, and my dad, despite being full of apprehension, looked under the car to see if we had run over anyone, considering how many small children had been in the theatre. Miraculously, because my date had wanted to leave the theatre first, no one was hurt. But if we had exited in the middle of the crowd, who knows who may have been injured or killed.
My high school English teacher, a kind of high-strung guy, came over to the van, and when he saw my dad was the driver, he was in shock. I think his words were “I thought the driver was a maniac teenager who had had a breakup with his girlfriend and wanted to smash everything. When I saw it was you…I…I didn’t know what was going on.”
We didn’t know either. Dad had pressed on the brake, tried to put it into park, tried to turn the key off and pull the key out and the car kept going. This is why I get so upset when people would ask Berger why she didn’t steer away from the Costco. I don’t think the person asking that question has ever been in an out of control car. You only have so many limbs, you only have so many seconds, you only have so many things to try. Was he expecting her to be some kind of stunt-driver?
She says her shoe got stuck. Maybe it did…or maybe, in an attempt to find a logical end to something that feels so random and devoid of reason, police and others convinced her that’s what happened. I’m not saying they did it maliciously. She was an older driver, and sometimes seniors have been known to have gas-brake accidents. So maybe they thought this was the case, and convinced her that’s what happened.
The final report on our car was “pedal error” even though, from what I remember of stories, it started accelerating while sitting on the mechanic’s hoist with no one pushing any pedals. They checked the car for those floor mats that used to get stuck under pedals and they weren’t there. But still, somehow, it was pedal error. Now, imagine if we had hit a child. Imagine the kind of pressure my dad would have been placed under. Could they have convinced him that it was something he did that caused this tragedy? After all, the investigation ruled it pedal error. Dad is a logical guy, and even though it would have filled him with guilt, it would have felt like the more realistic scenario than a car going loopy and developing a mind of its own. My dad would live with the feeling that he had done this, and may have had convictions, even though we all know he didn’t. He probably would have started off saying that he didn’t do it, but give it enough time and enough so-called evidence, and would he have wavered? Would he have thought that maybe it all happened so fast and he slipped? Haven’t you ever had a memory kind of change over time as you hear more and more things? This is a thing.
I can’t imagine how the small town would have reacted, based on how everyone reacted to this one. Where I grew up, everybody knew everybody. The lost life or lives would have been those of our neighbours. Would we have had to have the case moved somewhere far away where impartiality was possible?
I hear that voice in my head saying “This is all woulda coulda shouldas. You didn’t hit anybody, Berger did. You don’t know what made the car go nuts, she says it’s a shoe. Why compare the two?” But I feel like the only thing that kept us from potentially having to deal with this was my date whispering “Let’s try and get out of here first!” That’s all. Maybe my dad being not as old was also helpful. But one change in circumstances, and this could have been us.
I especially think of my dad when I hear Berger say she hasn’t been able to drive since. My dad said that for months after, he had to take 3 deep breaths before turning the key in any vehicle.
Perhaps I’m giving this way too much thought, and it is as simple as everybody thinks, but I just can’t simplify it like that. I feel terrible for the family that lost two children and had other family members who had to suffer through recovery, but I also can’t bring myself to condemn Berger. There is so much that none of us know, even after the investigation. I’m glad that the family can forgive Berger, and I hope that we don’t find out down the road way too late that this whole thing was caused by a computer issue, and not a stuck shoe. But most of all, I hope everyone can heal.