The kindness of strangers


We spend so much of our lives tied up in our own day-to-day, the details, whether it be career, business, family, etc. Once in a while something happens that makes you take stock, stand back and be grateful. Wednesday this week, for me, was such a day.

I was attending an event, the Amourers and Brasiers Forum, held by the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy, Cambridge University. A friend and medtech entrepreneur suggested it might be an interesting event.

Before this, in the morning and over a sandwich lunch I spent a delightful few hours with another entrepreneur and alumni who has built and sold two companies – one in medtech and one in tech. His background was as a materials and metallurgy scientist, so it was fascinating to hear his insights on how materials sciences reaches quietly into so many areas of our daily lives (and into a very wide range of medtech).

In the afternoon, the forum started with 3 lectures – each from a scientist finding real world applications for his expertise: sustainable materials; semi-conductors; and geology for rare earth metals. The key-note speaker, scheduled for much later in the afternoon, was an automotive engineer – a VP of Global R&D at General Motors (unfortunately, I was unable to stay for his talk). We all stepped out for the coffee break around 4pm.

Then I got the call.

It was from my wife. Along with our two small children (ages – nearly 5 yrs; 4 months) she’d been involved in a serious car accident. In the space of a couple of minutes I had 3 short broken phone calls – all I knew was I had to get home, about 50 miles away. While winding through Cambridge traffic, I kept trying to call to get more details. I finally found out, 30 minutes later, that despite the shock, thankfully everyone was safe and okay.

It was approaching rush hour, so it took nearly 2 hours to get home. There was nothing I could do in the meantime except drive. When I eventually got home, I learned that my wife’s car had been hit on the front offside (passenger side) at probably 60-70 miles per hour by an oncoming vehicle.

My youngest son was in the back on the same side. He’d been in a rear facing car seat, secured with base and belt. The curtain airbags went off on his side, along with both sets of front air bags. The safety cage remained fully intact. He was the most exposed, screamed on impact and continued for a while. But once over the shock, he was fine and had no injuries. (As I write this in my home office, I can hear him across the hallway, cooing and gurgling).

Directly, or indirectly, a whole bunch of people – strangers – looked after my family while I couldn’t:

  • The police officers who raced to the scene within 3-4 minutes and closed off the main bypass road where the accident happened. They coordinated everything, reassured my wife and took my older son into a police car to show him all the cool gadgets and buttons, and showed him how to operate the flashing blue lights (2 days later, this is the thing he’s STILL talking about).
  • The paramedics who were there as quickly as the police and checked over everyone who was involved. After satisfying themselves professionally, their reassurance and calming of shocked individuals was invaluable.
  • The passers-by, good samaritans. A young couple, with 3 young children of their own, stopped to help (by now the police had of course blocked the road, so there was no threat of unaware oncoming traffic). My wife was panicking, so they looked after my youngest son, fed him and settled him. When everything was getting cleared up, they also brought my wife and children home, and stayed with them until other family (grandparents) arrived. It turns out this couple are neighbours we just hadn’t met yet, living at the end of our road.  A few others stopped and helped at the scene too.
  • Ironically, the last group I want to mention are from the same group I mentioned at the start of this post – the materials scientists and automotive engineers. I think repeatedly about the innovations that meant my family were physically unharmed (and emotionally much less too), particularly when you consider how bad it could have been – think car crumple zones, safety cages, side-impact protection bars, seat-belts, airbags, and tough crash-tested safety seats for both of our kids.

The following day I went to the recovery garage to see our car; it was a harrowing sight. Yet I was also very relieved that all the safety features had acted in concert and performed flawlessly.

Nobody wants to think about what could happen in a crash. What happened to us was horrible. But, you can do things to proactively stack the deck in your favour.

To check out the best crash-tested car seats (which I did the same night for replacements), go to Which? Top 10 Car Seats – check out the video, not all car seats are the same! You may also want to check out car crash-test safety data next time you’re in the market for a new vehicle: in the UK EuroNCAP (I’ve been using this site for years to help choose car purchases – thank God); in the US Safercar . If just one person who reads this blog uses these websites to get the safest cars and car seats, its been worthwhile.

So, to all the strangers, all the people who were there that day, and to all the innovators who over the years have improved car safety technology – as people who helped ensure my family was safe – THANK YOU.

This post is by Raman Minhas

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