Miata Crash scene
“I could never drive something that small, I wouldn’t feel safe.”
Owners of Mazda Miatas, particularly the first-generation NA model, hear that all the time. I can no longer count myself among their ranks because I crashed my 20-year-old Miata in late December (Merry Christmas!). The “not safe” claims, though, still seem worth addressing. I walked away unharmed, aside from a cussedly stubborn bone bruise in my right hand. I hit a bigger car at 35 to 40 mph without time to even tap the brakes. My 1996 Miataâ79,000 miles, mechanically sound but cosmetically worn aside from a seven-week-old new topâwas a total loss. But its safety systems and structure did what they were designed to do: protect the occupant.
It happened barely two miles from my home on December 22. Headed for a downtown Detroit meeting, I set out under a low overcast sky at about 9:30 a.m.. The airbag warning lamp flickered, as it had been doing intermittently for over a year. My to-do list for the car included pulling the original steering wheel with its 20-year-old airbag. It was unlikely to work anyway, so I figured the wheel could be replaced with something prettier and sportier.
A misty rain had fallen that morning but it had stopped. Out on the main road, spray off wet pavement required that I flip on the wipers. Habit is to turn on the headlights any time the wipers go on, but I was accelerating through the gears, approaching a traffic signal, so I just parked my left hand fingers atop the steering wheel hub to remind myself to turn on the lights (on the left stalk) when I got a moment. The signal was green and I stayed in the left lane to pass traffic that was slowing to turn right. My own right turn was coming up, at the next signal only a quarter-mile ahead, but there are several driveways in that short stretchâa strip mall with a 7-Eleven, a township fire station, then another shopping center. This route was familiar to me from more than 20 years of commuting into the city. The right lane is a perilous place to be in the morning, better to drive past it all and get over later, when two right-turn-only lanes appear.
I never got that far. Approaching the first intersection, I noticed a Ford Taurus coming the other direction as it pulled into the left-turn lane. The front bumper dipped toward the ground; good, he was on the brakes. His left-turn lane was governed by a blinking red arrow, I knew, and he seemed to be stopping as required. So I checked my right side mirror to make sure the cars I was passing really had turned right. When I turned my head forward again, the windshield was full of Taurus. Three thoughts came in quick succession: “I can’t believe he decided to go!” “There’s no avoiding this.” And, “I hope my femurs survive.” Shattered femurs are a pretty common injury in such collisions, and I’ve got two artificial hips, meaning such an injury would likely land me in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. I remember dipping the clutch, getting my right foot off the gas but not over to the brake pedal.
BANG! I don’t think I passed out, but aside from loudness, everything went black for a few seconds. In shock, I just sat there, heart racing, thoughts muddy. The cabin was full of dustâboth airbags had deployed, the passenger-side one busting the windshield, the driver-side one propelling my left hand into my face. My nose hurt and there was a nose-shaped bruise on the back of my left hand. My right hand hurt and there was a lump on the side of my wrist; I think it banged off the shifter or the handbrake handle. But nothing major, nothing broken, nothing bleeding. I wanted air and found the power window switch on the console, sort ofâthe passenger-side window opened rather than the driver-side one I’d intended. Then there was a guy standing outside, rapping on the glass, and I gradually remembered how to open the door, which worked fine.
“Are you okay? Just stay there, that was a hell of a whack. The police are on their way.”
My favorite car was sitting pretty much dead center in the intersection, turned nearly 90-degrees from where it had been pointed. The Taurus, which hadn’t been moving very quickly, had stopped just before hitting the stopped northbound traffic. The other driver was trying to get his car to move, but it wouldn’t. He got out of the car, glanced back toward me, and walked into the 7-Eleven. He came out a few minutes later with a new pack of smokes and was standing there watching when the EMS guys arrived. They’d been called, but the station was close enough that one of the guys checking me out told me he’d heard the collision.
The other guy’s car was done-for, too. The drivetrain isn’t attached to the chassis anymore .
The other guy’s car in the scrapyard. It was done-for, too. The drivetrain isn’t aligned to the chassis anymore.
The bystander who’d come to my window urged me to stay put, but I insisted I wanted out. This guy would hang around, and offered himself as a witness when the cops showed up. He’d seen it all happen, couldn’t believe the guy had turned right in front of me, either. “He couldn’t have been looking.” Eventually, the other driver said, standing between the two cops who were writing up his “failure to yield” citation: “I didn’t see you. You know, small black car, wet black pavement.” I don’t know . . .Â I could have detected the color of his eyes by the time he turned, he couldn’t have looked at all. But maybe if I’d gotten those headlights on? In nearly six years of driving the Miata, I’d always taken a motorcyclist-like approach of assuming other drivers didn’t see it. Not turning the lights on was my biggest mistake. That, and assuming the guy would stop.
Here she is in the scrapyard. Good-bye faithful friend.
Here she is in the scrapyard. Good-bye faithful friend.
My Good Samaritan/witness also suggested he’d not have been surprised to find me unconscious or dead. Rational assumption: older guy, small car, big hit. The statistics say that’s a bad combo with high fatality rates. My safety belt was cinched tight, though, and the collision was impressive but not head-on nor at high speed. And the front structure collapsed almost exactly as it does in the crash tests conducted by the government and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Everything forward of the firewall/floor collapsed, but aft of that, the car was fine. I’m not really sure what the airbags did for me besides punch me in the face. The seatbelt did its job, as the shoulder bruise attested. Might my face have bounced off that prettier, airbag-free steering wheel I wanted? Hard to say. Would more modern safety technology have helped? Maybe one of the collision-detection systems could have applied the brakes in that split-second, erased a few miles-per-hour from the collision speed, but otherwise, I suspect not.
The size argument always struck me as absurd: Size matters most if you just expect and assume that you will crash. The point, I’ve always felt, was to avoid incidents with a nimble machine and an attentive driver. Besides, well before 1996, all cars had to pass government crash tests and most do at least okay in the more demanding collisions the insurance industry usesâthe Miata did. Designed in the late 1980s, the first-gen Miata didn’t score 5-star ratings, but got passing grades (3s and 4s) from IIHS and met the regulatory standards of its day. According to a 1996 study from IIHS’ Highway Loss Data Institute (HiLDI), the Miata’s fatality risk measured 38 in multi-vehicle collisions on a scale that sets “average” at 100 (1 death per 10,000 vehicles on the road). It was the best in the small sports car class at the time. A Corvette of that period was at 61. (Most deaths actually happen in single-car crashes, where mass-differential matters not at all. In that category, the Miata measured in at 47, all small sports cars at 87, and the Corvette at 189).
In vehicle-to-vehicle crashes, mid-size sedans, as a group, came in at 56, on a range from 18 (VW Passat) to 116 (Chrysler LeBaron), slightly worse than small sports cars as a class (53). So maybe there’s something to be said for avoiding crashes in the first place. That approach worked for me, generally speaking, for all the years between my 16th birthday and three months into my 60th year. Not one significant crashâa few parking-lot-speed scratches, but no big bangsâdespite 30 years of writing about cars driven at sometimes ridiculous speeds and trying to satisfy photographers intent on dramatic images. One key was always driving defensively. I’d avoided many an imminent collision by always leaving myself an out and honing my skills so even if evasive maneuvers meant sliding across wet grass at night (as it did once with two toddlers in the back seat), I could do that. Standard car-guy stuff, I’d think, not heroics.
It was with that attitude in my mind that I picked up a black-on-black â96 Miata in 2009. With test cars to be driven and no commute, I did about 6000 miles a year. I spun the Miata once that first year on a wet freeway ramp on tires that, I learned afterward, had good tread but were gripless because they were as old as the car. Just before it stopped, we struck the guardrail a glancing blow with the right front corner at under 5 mph. Just my car involved, and entirely my fault. That was my biggest on-road event until December 22, 2015.
When the insurance paid off, I picked up a 2006 Mazda RX-8 as my new backup car. Within days, Mazda expanded a recall to include the new-to-me ride. It has Takata airbags, so I’m thinking about replacing a steering wheel again.