It was the best of times, it was the worst of times
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I had my first car accident this week. Actually – let me rephrase that: I experienced my first car accident. I wasn’t behind the wheel, nor was I even in the car, but I felt like I had whiplash all the same.

“I’m fine, but I’ve been in an accident.” It’s exactly the kind of phone call anyone dreads receiving from a family member – although I can acknowledge that, for many, the call is far, far worse.

My husband was behind the wheel of our trusty third-generation Subaru Outback (‘The Duchess’) driving 40km/h down a main road in our suburb, when another driver decided to do an ill-advised U-turn directly in the path of our car with barely a second's warning.

The sound of the collision was enough to pull employees at the nearby Audi service centre away from their work and onto the street in concern.

In a lot of ways, it was the best-case scenario for a car crash (if there is such a thing). The other driver, visibly shaken, immediately took responsibility and apologised profusely. No-one was hurt.

My husband was able to pull off the road and into the Audi car park, where helpful mechanics quickly informed him the car was not safe to drive (it was leaking fluids all over the ground – dead giveaway).

The staff even informed my husband their CCTV cameras had captured footage of the incident, just in case we needed it.

I arrived on the scene minutes after the accident because it happened near our house, struck by how quickly your day can turn from fine to not-so-fine, but relieved everyone was okay.

The other driver assured us he had comprehensive assurance (so did we) and would sort it all out the minute he got home. Time was of the essence given our car was slowly coating the service centre forecourt in a thin layer of oil. We exchanged details and returned home to calm our nerves.

Having never experienced this kind of thing before, I learned that it’s at this point the adrenaline wears off and the panic sets in.

My husband, who had also never had a car accident of any kind, started to beat himself up that he hadn’t recorded enough information from the other driver.

Normally extremely calm and cool-headed, the crash had rattled him so badly that he couldn’t stop his hands from shaking, let alone rationally consider asking for the information he would later require.

According to the experts, otherwise known as NRMA Insurance Executive Manager Luke Gallagher, there are a few key things to do immediately after being involved in an accident:

  1. Get safe – Make sure you're safely off the road and ring 000 in case of injury or a hazard.
  2. Get details – Note down the details of the other drivers involved and take photos of the accident if you are able to. These key details include the name, phone number, address and licence details of the other driver, as well as the make, model and plate number of any other cars involved and the names and numbers of any witnesses.
  3. Get a tow – If needed, contact your insurer or roadside assistance company to arrange a tow.

Where possible, grab as many photos of the scene as you can. Damage to your car, damage to other cars, photos of the driver's licences of those involved, photos of the surrounds and photos of the road conditions – they'll all be extremely helpful later when detailing the incident for your insurance claim.

For us, what came next was a rapid-fire series of events both good and bad. Advice from kind colleagues. Several anxious viewings of the CCTV footage. A frantic search to confirm the other driver's registration online (it checked out). Generous phone calls from CarAdvice's publisher, James Ward, offering to sort out an extra car to cover us in the meantime. Phone calls to the police, just in case. Phone calls to our panicked parents.

Thankfully, not long after, we heard from the other driver, who still sounded shaken up and told us he’d sort it all out tomorrow morning.

As it turns out, waiting around only added to our anxiety. So, we decided to accelerate the claim on our end, organise the tow truck and commence proceedings.

A word of unsolicited advice: we found that acting quickly, independently and decisively was the most efficient way to quell the insipid anxiety that inevitably takes over in the wake of an accident.

This morning, I walked to the site of the accident to meet the tow truck driver. When I arrived, I couldn’t help but laugh at the sight of the bashed-up Outback, surrounded by rags soaking up her oil leak and really bringing down the calibre of Audi’s otherwise glistening, immaculate forecourt.

I saluted her for, as my colleague Ben Zachariah very accurately said: "If the Outback is poorly and your husband is not, then it did its job".

The Audi service team was graciously unbothered by the mess – without even being asked, they grabbed the keys, opened the car up and four staff courteously pushed the car into position for the tow truck driver, who told me he’d do his best to salvage our beloved Duchess.

The level of kindness I was shown was enough to make me feel teary.

Less than 24 hours later, the ordeal was over – both drivers had made their insurance claims, our car had been towed and all paperwork had been completed, although it looks as though our Duchess sadly won't make it out the other side after her heroic last gesture for our family.

The entire experience taught me something I’m unlikely to forget. As transient citizens of our nation’s roads, we really are at the mercy of each other – for better or for worse.

It doesn't matter how great a driver you are, or how 'safe' your car is, a split-second decision from a stranger can make all the difference. If you think about it too long, it’s enough to make you never want to drive again.

And yet, it was also a bunch of strangers who salvaged me and my husband’s bad experience.

The service centre mechanics who, without hesitation, got on their hands and knees to mop up the leaking oil. The kind insurance representative who was the first person to ask me, “Are you and your husband okay?”. The hardy tow truck driver who told me he’d “take care of everything”.

We can be each other’s worst enemies or best friends behind the wheel. Every single time we get in the car, we must remember we’re not just responsible for our own safety, but the safety of every passenger, pedestrian, driver and cyclist who passes us by. It’s a responsibility none of us should take lightly.

Even though I wasn’t directly involved, an incident that could have been far, far worse has served as a timely, necessary reminder of the significant, life-changing responsibilities that come with being a licensed driver.

On the bright side, now we get to shop for a new car.