23 March 2008

"Sorry sir, but yours isn't a breakdown..."

It felt like I was on an Arctic version of the waltzers. The carriage zig-zagged back and forth, pressing forward at the same time. The gravity pushed me back into my chair and after about ten seconds I realised that the ride was about to come to an end.

It did with a resounding thump.

The M62 was layered in snow overnight and I had slowed down accordingly. I'd done almost the entire motorway from leaving the nightclub in Stockport and was about two miles from the A-road into Hull and the sanctuary of the radio station when, at about 30mph, the black ice got me.

The things that go through your mind when your car is spinning. I didn't have time to be frightened. In a way I knew, even as I spun, that the steel cage base of the Ford Mondeo, coupled with my lack of speed at the point the sliding began, that I wasn't going to be hurt badly, if at all. I had time to brace myself. The question was whether I could do anything to a) make sure the car halted off the road rather than on; and b) minimise the damage.

I managed the former but not the latter.

Eventually it careered towards the hard shoulder sideways on and the front bumper took the lot. The bonnet caved in and the impact forced the car to do a 180-degree turn. The back then took the next whack, and eventually it stopped at an angle, on the hard shoulder, facing the wrong way.

The airbags didn't work. Thank you Ford. They'll be hearing from me.

The first ten seconds were spent making sure I wasn't hurt. Not even a cut or abrasion. So then it was on with the hazards and out with the mobile.

I rang the AA. How useless, lousy and appalling are the AA when you've had an accident? "Oh we don't do road accidents, only breakdowns. Sorry sir, but yours isn't a breakdown," they said, actively seeking to put as little empathy in their voices as they could.

(Point of order: My car is broken. Half the bonnet is hanging down. That to me is a breakdown. Fourth emergency service my arse).

I pay upwards of £90 a year and you're telling me that as I sit, shaken, in my crushed car, facing the wrong way on an unlit, snowy motorway at 4.30am on Easter Sunday, that you won't be able to assist me? How about if I told you I was a pregnant woman? What if I had a baby in the rear of the car? Would that get you out to your subscribers who keep you in work?

It reminded me of the health insurance policy that Gus Hedges of Drop The Dead Donkey took out: "I didn't read the small print. It only covered me until the day I became ill."

Mind you, whenever I've called the AA in the past, the expression "someone will be there in an hour" can usually be translated as "our nearest willing emergency breakdown company is actually four postal districts away, so we'll play it by ear and fob you off, but we hope you've got a flask of coffee and a blanket with you just in case".

When the charisma-free AA switchboard person began to ask me - still fewer than 60 seconds after impact, remember - if I could recall how I started my AA account ("was it through your bank, for example?") I rang off, exasperated. It was an accident and the car was immobile, so the police were required anyway.

I got the police switchboard number (there was no way I was dialling 999) and got someone far more human sounding. Quick questions, quick answers, quick advice. However, as I spoke to the operator, the plot thickened as much as the snow had been...

There was a mighty cracking noise behind me. I looked through my back windscreen and could see nothing, as the snow had covered it. I turned the key in the ignition (remarkably, the engine started, even though it was uncovered) and got the wipers on.

Two more cars had collided on the hard shoulder behind me (well, ahead of me really, as I was facing the wrong way). I was still talking to the police as I looked at the damage. The operator's voice went from concerned, controlled urgency to absolute, limitless super-urgency. They were sending cars and pick-ups right away - or as right away as a blizzard and a few inches of snow could manage.

The other cars were a family saloon containing two middle aged couples, and a Ford Fiesta driven by a hooded young man whose grasp of English seemed negligible.

Nobody was hurt, mercifully. But I felt rotten when the two couples said they'd stopped when they saw me to see if I was ok - and then this other guy came herding into them.

"You're a witness to that!" said the driver of the saloon.

I had to confess that I wasn't. My car was pointing the wrong way and I was sitting in my driver's seat, on the phone, talking to the police and had merely heard a noise. I felt absolutely dreadful, more so than I already did through being stranded and almost certainly writing off my own car.

The police did seem to take forever to arrive. In truth it was about 45 minutes. During this time I rang work to say I'd be unable to fulfil my programme duties, and then rang the Natural Blonde. She offered to come out and get me. I told her, gently, that it was a crazy idea. The roads were almost entirely not passable and our village is a long way from the M62. No point in both of us being stranded.

I then put on as much spare clothing as I could find. I was in my nightclub gear, not exactly wrapped up warmly - thin sweater and canvas trousers. I'd been at football previous to that and my cold weather garb was in the boot, so on went extra layers, plus woolly hat and scarf. I'd been given the choice of devil and deep blue sea - stay in the car and keep warm, bur risk being hit by another sliding driver (and some of the maniacs who drove past us deserve bloody shooting, especially one coach driver who I swear was doing 60mph), or stay out of the car, in less immediate danger of the passing traffic hazards, but freeze your hangy-downy bits off until help arrives.

I chose the latter. Aside from anything else, I didn't know if the engine was leaking.

All this time, the hooded young chap was shuffling up and down the hard shoulder, saying next to nothing. The middle aged couples - who I then found out had just landed from a Canary Islands holiday and were going home from the airport, making me feel even more like the complete moron - were raging with him, though keeping it in as much check as they could. The women, wearing shorts and sandals, had gone for the option of staying in the car, the men were wandering around outdoors.

A police car arrived, and the sergeant who dealt with us was first class. He spoke to us like we were adults, taking down the details. I explained that the AA had refused to help - he immediately radioed his control room to ask his colleagues to demand the AA's urgent and instant attention. His colleagues replied that, essentially, the AA wouldn't budge and we could all freeze. So the cops themselves had to arrange our vehicles' removal and our journeys home.

I collected all my valuables and essentials from the car - four bags' worth - and got into a police Proton. The shuffling, hooded chap got in the back. He had been breathalysed, though clearly he'd not blown anything significant into the bag otherwise he'd have been taken to the station, not home. The holidaymakers got into a second car.

We edged gently along the snowy A-road into Hull - a car did a full circle in front of us though luckily for the driver came to a halt without hitting anything - and we slowly trudged through the awful weather towards the city centre. Our hooded friend was dropped off outside one of the city's less salubrious purple-coloured high-rise blocks.

I hate to sound presumptive, but I bet he wasn't insured.

I finally got home at 7.30am. I have never been so relieved and glad to be in my own surroundings in all my life. The sergeant who dealt with us at the scene, and the second sergeant who drove us home afterwards were both exceptional. I intend to tell their force so.

So, the fallout begins. Ford need to explain to me why two major impacts with the crash barrier didn't prompt their airbags to put in an appearance. The insurance company will look at the car - as I write this I still don't know where it has been taken - and then advise me of its status, but I suspect it's irreparable. Meanwhile, I am set to cancel my AA subscription and find a motoring organisation that actually chooses to give a toss about its members when they're in danger, or pain, or limbo, or all three. It was Sunday, a Bank Holiday Weekend, the middle of the night, on an unlit motorway covered in snow and the car was undriveable and, for all I knew, still a danger even in its crumpled stationary state. And the AA said they weren't interested.

The other issue was where the hell the gritters had got to. I'd seen some on the other side of the Pennines, where the weather was as bad but the carriageways slightly clearer. On our side, there was no sign of any salt on the road, which was outrageous. The weather warnings were clear and the on/off flurries over the previous 24 hours should have been incentive enough to get the roads treated in the evening before the overnight blizzards came. Remarkably, numerous gritters drove past us in those 45 minutes between the accidents and the arrival of the police. Not better late than never, in our case.

I've slept a bit, and this spot of blogging is proving cathartic as the shock of what had happened - and the knowledge of what could have happened - has now come home to me. I was smashed up by a lorry in my Ford Orion in 1994 and remember only too well how fortunate I was to emerge with meagre injuries; a slight cut to my neck and scratches on the tops of both hands. I looked like the title sequence of Aubrey - I'd ended up sitting in the middle of a major road holding a steering wheel as the car just fell apart around me. Comical now, but it is impossible to put into words how you feel at the time. That's how shock affects you.

I thank the police, wish well the returning holidaymakers and feel generally better now. I'm home, warm, safe and healthy. So, can anyone give me a lift to work tomorrow?


Louis Barfe said...

Deepest sympathy, old badger. Having bounced off the central reservation of the A12 in a Nissan Bluebird in the wet, I know a little of what you felt. Mrs B discovered the hard way that the AA operates a 3 strikes and that's it policy. You're allowed 3 call-outs in 1 year of membership, but they don't exactly advertise the fact.

Steve said...

AA - Absolute Arseholes? Glad to hear you're ok - sounds an appalling experience... but thank God it was no worse, eh?