Four seconds left to live – what went through my mind

A few months ago I travelled across England and then across France with my girlfriend, Stephanie, and her parents to move her stuff to Poitiers in western France, where she is studying for a year. After offloading Stephanie’s things and spending a weekend in Poitiers, we had completed most of our 9-hour journey back and were about 90 minutes away from home.

Driving along on the M2 at 70mph while chit-chatting, we noticed a black Mini Cooper ahead with its hazard lights on and not moving at all. It was in our lane, which was the third of four lanes (next to the fast lane) and there was too much traffic to swerve to either side, so we braked firmly and stopped about two metres short of the car in front. The panic of sitting still on a motorway full of very fast-moving cars set in quickly and we put our hazard lights on and looked around to see if we could pull out into either of the adjacent lanes, but the traffic was too heavy and moved too quickly to risk such a move.

I turned around, looking out of the back window to see a car approaching us at high speed and swerving into the lane to the left. Another car approached, but while still far away it moved into the lane to our right. Then, in the distance, I could see a red car approaching and not swerving away like the others. In fact, it wasn’t slowing down at all. I said, “There’s another car coming towards us,” and, while still staring intently for signs of slowing down, screamed, “It’s still coming. It’s not going to stop!

When I said that, I knew we were all going to die.

From the moment in time when I realised the car would hit us, until the point that it smashed into us at 70mph, there were probably about 4 seconds. I remember with perfect clarity that moment and I can still relive it in my mind at any time. In fact, I can list my thoughts precisely as I had them at the time, second by second:

  1. Good heavens, yet another car coming
  2. Oh shit, it’s not slowing down
  3. Shit. It’s going to hit us

That is honestly what was in my head at the time. I reassessed my thoughts a couple of minutes after the crash, once the adrenaline faded, which helped me to remember them until now.

I remember thinking, “Is that all? No other thoughts? Life, love, memories, all left out of the last moment?” It’s sad but it’s true. I must have had more romantic notions of the moment when I thought I was going to die, but that doesn’t change reality.

Incidentally, I never asked Stephanie’s parents what they had been thinking at the time, although I was the only one watching the car as it approached so they may have had no time to think at all.

I don’t know what would be different if I had more time to brace myself. How would I have felt with 40 seconds’ warning? What about 4 minutes’?

Since that day, I often consider that moment, my thoughts at the time, and death. I have come to no conclusions over the incident, except that the phrase “You never know, you could drop dead tomorrow” is real for me now. There is no hiding from it; I could drop dead at any time and maybe all that’ll happen is that I will clench my fists, close my eyes, scream “SHIIIT” in my head and it’ll be over.

Perhaps the dramatisation of death in films had skewed my notions of that final moment. While I know that I might have a little more warning before I die, I can’t help obsessing over those 4 seconds. I wasn’t ready to go.

Nowadays I live a more considered life than before. I am sometimes frustrated that it took near-death for me to realise the value of my time, but now that I’m here I’m glad it happened. Maybe telling this story can be a similar wake-up call for others. I hope readers can see that every day is a gift without needing their own horrific 4 seconds to realise it.