Smack! I recognized the distinctive sound of car-on-car impact. Slowly looking up I wondered, “Did I do that?” I had been sitting at a red light with my foot on the brake and realized I could not have done anything. I was still looking at the tail lights of the car in front of me at a safe distance away, still waiting for the light to turn green. There was a dull ache at the back of my head. I looked in my mirror and saw the grill of a pickup through the opening where my back window had been with chunks of shattered safety glass hanging from the remaining frame. At the moment of impact I had been looking down in my lap to check the time, concerned I would be late for a meeting. 3:55. I turned off the engine and got out and met the driver of the pickup. After a moment I finally said, “I’m going to need a minute.”
“I think I do too,” she agreed.
A week later I am still trying to digest all that the crash has meant. I find myself, yet again, writing about something I was firmly committed to avoiding. The accident was so minor, but it has consumed nearly everything I have done for a week. I have had no choice but to focus on the fallout from that split second. And once again, I am finding the impact of a fairly routine set of circumstances has a way of highlighting injustice and disparity, and showcasing what could be different in this world.
“This is not your fault. You did not deserve this,” the woman driving the 1980s-vintage blue pickup began. “I don’t have insurance, but I will make this right.” Like me, she was self-employed. She had recently gone through a period without much business and had to miss her last premium payment. As I instinctively rubbed the back of my head it occurred to me I dare not say anything about the dull ache that materialized at the moment of impact, as if the truck’s bumper reached all the way through the car and touched me directly. All it would mean is more bills for the woman who would not be in a position to pay them anyway. Even if her insurance had not lapsed it would not be so easy to take care of any physical personal damage without a mess of paperwork and phone calls.
My own insurance agent was concerned about the possibility of a concussion and encouraged me to get an exam right away. There is not much that can be done about a mild concussion, so the effort seemed unnecessary and almost punitive for the other woman. What would a diagnosis of a concussion accomplish other than to make her feel worse than she already did?
By coincidence I saw my regular health care provider for my annual checkup a few days later, and after much hesitancy I finally mentioned the accident. “I’ve been a little headachey, but I’m fine,” I told her. By the weekend I was feeling pretty well, and had mostly laid off the ibuprophen, which it turns out I should not have been taking if there was any chance I really did have a minor concussion. Still, my provider was concerned about the impact and suggested I consult with a rolfer.
Auto insurance has always been a priority that we have committed to finding a way to afford. It means that while some women never receive prenatal care, and some people with disabilities find it difficult to receive adequate assistance in daily living, and a great number of ordinary blokes fear the cost of a broken bone, appendicitis or even tooth decay, I get to go to a rolfer for a headache. It is appropriate care given the circumstances, but a lot of people are unable to receive even minimal care for their needs. Appropriate and ideal care is a distant fantasy in many cases.
I wonder, what if the other driver has an ache at the back of her head, too? My auto policy will not help her in any way. Health insurance is even more expensive than auto insurance. Has she been able to prioritize that cost? What if she has none? Will she have to take time from her work to recover when business has already been slow? How much further behind will she get on her bills? Why does it matter what happened or who is at fault? How does the fact that we were sitting in motor vehicles negate the need for adequate and equitable health care? Shouldn’t we both be entitled some advice from an appropriate medical professional? In a different country it would not matter what caused a headache. You just take care of it.
The structural unfairness underlying U.S. health care has been only one issue I have found problematic. I have felt a great deal of pressure to be angry, especially from the body shop where I took the car later that afternoon. Though it was after 5:00 in the evening when I arrived the shop worker was frustrated with me because I refused to file an insurance claim immediately. I explained it would make no difference whether the claim was filed that night or in the morning when my own agent arrived at his office. I needed to give the other driver time to process the situation and figure out her options before moving forward. After the close of a standard business day a delay of 16 hours in filing a report would not be a delay at all. “This is her fault,” he told me. “She was irresponsible. She knew what she was doing. She is not going to take responsibility for this. They never do. You need to file a report with your insurance company.”
I shrugged at the man’s forcefulness. Accidents happen. I told him I did not care whether the other driver was the irresponsible scam artist he anticipated, or whether things in her life were starting to fall apart. Neither assumption about the other driver would change the situation for me. Consequently, it was in my best interest to assume her life was falling apart, and that she needed support, encouragement, and confidence that this was a problem that could be solved. I could be open and communicative, and help her gather full information that would help her come to terms with the events and what her options were so that she could be mentally and emotionally prepared to move forward. Or I could assume the worst of her, close off communications and move forward without her readiness, and protect myself by creating as large of a claim against her as possible, which would undoubtedly make it difficult to proceed and difficult to reach her when necessary. Such steps would certainly make it even more challenging for her to afford insurance in the future.
I am, by no means, an angel of patience, but getting angry seems like a waste of energy in this situation. I would rather save my anger for something useful, like altering the structural power relationships that create a stratified social hierarchy and keep people oppressed. Marx and others tell us that it is through conflict, rooted in the anger of injustice that manifests from internal tensions in social conditions, that progress and social change can occur. Few emotions move people into collective action better than anger.
The anger from the autobody shop worker was inexplicable to me. It sounded remarkably similar to arguments about the health care reform package of 2010, when I heard so many times that people who do not have health insurance are irresponsible, that it is their choice to be uninsured. There are probably a handful of people for whom this is true. But the real reason that most people in the U.S. are uninsured is because they do not have an employer who provides insurance, and they do not have enough money to buy it on their own after paying the rent, utilities, and groceries.
Why not be angry at the policy makers who could choose to guarantee that everyone has adequate, equitable, and affordable health care regardless of their employment status, income, or the reason care is needed? Why not be angry with the policy makers who could choose to make infrastructure investments that would make it easier to get around by public transit than by car? Why not be angry with those who benefit from a tax structure that is inadequate to fund a comprehensive safety net that fills the gaps in people’s income, and why not be angry at those who are in a position to do something about it but who choose not to fulfill their responsibility to act on it?
This event is merely an example of how the work I do filters the way I interpret my daily interactions. That does not make the structural barriers to equity, fairness, and opportunity less real for the woman in the blue pickup. I will still take advantage of some of the benefits available from my insurance as I need them, but I wonder what additional burden it will cause for her directly and indirectly? Maybe she is in school and now will not be able to pay her tuition or even get to class legally? Maybe she needs a small business loan, and now will not be able to get it? Even if she is the great, intentionally irresponsible scam artist who dodges every bill it may very well be due to need. When people are unable to piece together enough income to make ends meet they often must resort to measures such as driving without insurance or even driving without a license. Haven’t we all gone through a period when each month you wonder what bill you have to skip so that you can catch up on the bill you could not afford to pay last month?
Real scam artists are not driving uninsured 1980s model pickups. Nobody benefits when a driver runs into another car that is stopped waiting at a red light. But accidents still happen. It is clear that the rules and resources currently in place to protect people when they do occur, while important, do not reflect a culture of problem solving and well-being that is necessary for resolution.