Back when I was 17, within days of getting my driving licence, my parents shouted me an advanced driving training day. As they had done a few weeks earlier, when getting me prepared for my driving licence test (which I almost failed, for heel-and-toeing), they turned to Peter Finlay.
Peter was a front-line open-wheel racer in the 1970s, though he’s probably best known for his road and race driving school, which grew out of the one founded in 1967 by Peter Wherrett.
Something Finlay said to me all those years ago, as I squealed around in my drum-braked Mazda B1800 ute, rang loudly in my ears on a recent holiday in Greece. To paraphrase: always try to turn a big accident into a small one, or a small one into a near-miss.
In Greece, pure luck was the only thing that separated a near-miss from a big accident. In Mykonos for the July school holidays, I’d rented a Fiat Panda for our family explorations of the island. On one long incline not far out of the main town, we found ourselves immobile in a column of traffic. At which point, my wife insisted we should U-turn out of it, head back down the hill and find another route.
Tilting my head against the driver’s window (I’m on the left, remember) to see around the arc of cars, up the hill I saw a dark, narrow shape in the oncoming lane. It was about the size of a man, but it appeared to be coming downhill fast. Captain America in a winter tracksuit, was my first thought.
It may as well have been. Seconds later I was amazed/awestruck/appalled as the wheelying motorcycle, its rider and pillion both helmetless and shirtless, came past my window at a good 80km/h.
I was momentarily stunned. My wife, who hadn’t witnessed it, was still barking at me to turn around, but in the back of my mind was the probability that these blokes would have other bikes following them. I clocked a driveway on the opposite side of the road, flicked on my indicator, had a very conscious look ahead and kept looking as I turned hard to the left.
As the Panda’s nose reached the driveway, I heard the angry beeping of a horn. In my interior mirror a scooter rider, with pillion, was stopped on the centreline of the road. He was shaking his fist, shaking his head. Like I do when I’m on a bike and some bonehead in a car has almost cleaned me up.
I knew immediately what had happened. He’d been riding up the hill, overtaking the line of stopped cars. And suddenly, a white Fiat Panda turned into his path.
It was utterly, incontestably my fault.
In the midst of a bunch of converging factors – the speeding motorcycle stunt, my efforts to look up the road, being in a left-hook car and perhaps removed from unconscious habits – I just hadn’t thought to check behind me.
The scooter rider shook his head some more, then rode away. I stopped in the driveway for a couple of minutes, getting my head together. I felt guilty and ashamed. The scooter rider, his passenger … my daughter, sitting directly behind me, protected by only a few millimetres of sheetmetal and glass.
Our fabulous holiday may have been moments from a nightmarish saga of Greek police stations, hospitals, panicked and distraught relatives. Perhaps even a nightmare of a few lifetimes.
What shakes me so much is knowing that the outcome was completely out of my hands. One second later, three seconds later … I don’t know how near the near-miss was. I hadn’t heard the scooter, either before or during my turn, so perhaps it wasn’t even that close. But I don’t know, because I didn’t look.
While I’m grateful that chance smiled upon us on this occasion, I’m having a hard time forgiving myself.