Last Saturday I went to pick up N. from work and was parked on one of the busier streets in the centre of Heraklion. I found a place to park in front of a church, by a square. Across from the square a couple of streets emptied out into the one where I was parked.
It was two o’clock. A girl was on her moped next to the car in front of us, which made it very difficult for me to get out. When N. arrived I started the car and lightly honked at the girl to move. She was talking on her phone and gestured to me to move around her. I honked again, and she gestured again. I honked a third time, and she gestured a third time. By now, I was pretty angry. I should have reversed a bit to cut the angle — I’m sure I had enough room. If I had done so, I would have avoided what happened next.
I had signalled that I was going to turn right (it was a one-way street) and had looked ahead and back and there were no cars coming. But I didn’t look to my immediate right. I turned and then went on a head. A couple of seconds later — I think — I heard a bang and N. gasped. Two girls on their moped were up against the right-hand door. I had hit them.
They wobbled along for a bit, maybe hitting a few cars that were parked on the right side of the road, trying to keep their balance. Then they crashed into a parked car and fell to the ground.
The next thing I remember is that we were outside and the girls were trying to get up. They made it to the sidewalk and sat down on the steps of a shop. I remember seeing oil running out of the motor of the moped. My car was in the middle of the road, blocking traffic. N. was asking them if they were OK. I was trying to say something, but couldn’t speak. Anything that came to mind seem feeble, even pointless. What can you say? “I’m really sorry about that! Are you OK?” All you can think of is, is there anything you can do?
I ran to the car and parked it further up the street, in front of church driveway. Once again I had the girl with the phone in front of me, but this time she was sitting behind and her boyfriend or husband was getting ready to drive off. It didn’t occur to me to take down their number.
Someone had brought a stool out for one of the girls to sit on. They were checking themselves for injuries. The driver, who had been wearing a helmet, had scraped herself near her elbow, and that’s all, it seemed. Their legs were sore, there would doubtless be bruises, but nothing seemed broken. The passenger had not been wearing a helmet, but had been lucky not to have hit her head anywhere.
I ran to a nearby pharmacy to see if I could get something to tend to their scrapes, but it was closed.
The woman whose car they had crashed into had just turned up. Her light was broken, but that’s all. The moped, however, was in bad shape. It looked like a write-off.
“I just got it a week ago!” the girl said.
A man standing nearby took control of the situation. “You need to call your insurance company and the traffic police to report the accident.”
I took my phone out of my pocket and looked at it.
“Relax,” the man said. “Everything’ll be fine.”
I started dialling when the girl told me to hold on a minute. It turned out she had no license plates, no insurance, and hadn’t even got her license yet. She may have passed her exams and the license simply hadn’t been issued yet. I don’t know. I called my insurance company instead. Within a few minutes, someone came to assess the situation.
N. had called her brother and brother-in-law, who both know a lot about such situations. They were on the scene very soon. Every once in a while somebody would honk from where I had parked the car and I’d have to go and let them out.
I took a look at our car. It had a small scratch under the mirror. We had hit them only once, and not very hard. It wasn’t even anything worth troubling the insurance company about.
The assessment guy inevitably started lecturing the girl about driving without any papers. “If we call the police, you’ll get fined over 6,000 euros,” he told her. She was already quite shaken up, and this did not make her feel any better.
Her boyfriend had shown up by now, and so had the passenger’s boyfriend. They took off for the hospital and left the girl with the moped behind.
The assessment guy said that we wouldn’t need to call the police if they signed a paper promising not to attempt to ask for damages for injuries. He seemed to be saying that if the traffic police didn’t show up and take down a report of what had happened, they could turn around later and claim that they were hurt much worse than they really had been.
When I was telling him what had happened, I looked back. We were quite some ways from where I had been parked, further than I was expecting. Where had I actually hit them? Had they perhaps actually come up from behind and hit me? Had they come out from one of the side streets that emptied out onto the main street? I realised I didn’t really know what had happened. I was just willing to accept responsibility because I had knocked a couple of girls off their bike.
The driver’s boyfriend started saying that there was no need to call anyone, and was trying to get us to promise to pay for the bike, which had cost 2,500 euros. N’s brother-in-law got angry when he heard this. “How can you ask for that when you’re driving around without a license or insurance? Don’t you know that that’s illegal?”
It seemed tempers might flare up. I had no real idea what was going on. As a new driver who had never had an accident before, I didn’t know what to expect from my insurance company. I knew I had blanket insurance, so we were all covered, but I knew there could always be loop-holes for the company. The assessment guy took out a form. “Do you accept responsibility?” he asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said. I was afraid of committing myself until I understood the situation better.
“Oh, come on!” the girl said. “You came up from behind. Just admit it.” I said nothing. I waited. Everyone kept talking, trying to sort things out. Eventually, her boyfriend took her to the hospital too.
The assessment guy and I went to look at my car. “That’s nothing,” he said, and took pictures of the small scratch.
“What should I do?” I asked him. “Get them to sign what I said, and forget about them,” he said. “If you ask me, they’re trouble. You’re trying to make things easier for them, and keep them out of trouble, and they’re trying to get you to pay for the bike.”
“Do you think it was my fault?” I said.
“Definitely. But you have to decide for yourself whether you’re going to admit it.”
I admitted it then. I wrote out a description of what happened and accepted responsibility. Then we went to the hospital to see how the girls were doing. It was now 3 o’clock.
When we got there, they had done some tests, but were waiting to get them looked at. X-rays, blood tests, things like that. The passenger was very cheerful about the whole thing. She was in Crete for two or three days only, and thought it was funny that she should manage to find time for an accident. She lived in Santorini. The driver was still shaken up. We asked her if she’d sign the paper, and she said, “Write it up and I’ll sign.” Then she went off for more tests.
Her family started showing up. Her mother, and two brothers. They had spoken to a lawyer, who had said that she wouldn’t have to pay a fine if we went to the traffic police. Somehow the situation had altered: they seemed to think that we didn’t want them to go the traffic police to report the accident. We kept telling them that we didn’t mind either way, it was for their good that we weren’t going.
I also realised that they didn’t know that I had accepted responsibility for the accident. When I told them, they didn’t really believe me. Her brother, a rather aggressive guy, said he wanted proof. I took out a pink slip the assessment guy had given me and handed it to him, but it didn’t have the description of the accident. It wasn’t the paper I had signed.
“Where does it say you accepted responsibility?” he said. I looked at it. “I don’t have that paper,” I said.
“Why does it say here there aren’t any injuries?” he said.
“I don’t know.”
“I’m photocopying this,” he said, and was gone.
I remembered that the assessment guy had given the girl his cell number. “Why don’t you call him,” I told her, “and ask him yourself.”
When the brother came back with my pink slip, he called the assessment guy. He made the call down the hall. After a couple of minutes we heard him yelling so loud that doctors and nurses came running. “You bums! Where do you get off talking to me like that?”
He came back furious and told us, everyone in the waiting area, that when he asked the assessment guy why he had put no injuries on the form, he had answered with “Listen here, pal…”
“Who does he think he is, calling me ‘pal’ like that? Bunch of god-damned bums! And then they want you to sign forms saying you’re not going to ask for anything!”
It was clear now that we would have to go to the traffic police and report the accident. No agreement would be reached.
A few minutes later, my phone rang. It was the assessment guy.
“Listen,” he said. “I told the girl that if she had any injuries, she should call me and I’d make the changes on the form. Then her brother gets on the phone and starts insulting me. I’ve never been insulted in all my years on this job. My own father doesn’t insult me like that! Tell him I’m going to sue him! I’m coming on Monday to the traffic police with you guys and I’m going to file a complaint. And you’re my witness. Tell him! I’ll call you back, and you tell me what he said.”
Well, there was no way I was going to tell the angry brother that the insurance guy wanted to sue him, so I kept my mouth shut.
It was after 8 o’clock when we left the hospital. The doctors told both girls not to sign anything, which we didn’t care about any more. Now they wanted me to sign a paper stating that I had accepted responsibility.
“But I’ve already done that!” I said. It was too surreal a thread to follow, and we let it drop.
I looked at my policy when I got home, and realised I had even better coverage than I’d thought. I was even insured against people with no insurance. I also had legal coverage, so if they tried to sue me for something, they’d have to tackle the insurance company.
N.’s brother came home with us, and we ordered a huge pizza. We hadn’t eaten all day, and hadn’t done our usual Saturday shopping. We opened a few cans of beer. A wave of relief washed over me. I understood the situation now, knew where I stood, and knew that nothing could happen to me. I wasn’t going to get in trouble.
And it occurred to me that there was something insidious about the situation. I could rest easy tonight. I could relax and enjoy myself now, even have a little party. Two girls had been hurt and would be very bruised and sore tomorrow, unable to get out of bed, and yet I had the sense that I had just escaped blame. I had done nothing wrong, because I didn’t have to pay. Someone else would take care of it. I had insurance.