Car rolls into car behind it on a steep hill. Help me write this scene.
January 18, 2017 12:35 PM   Subscribe

I'm writing a fictional scene in which a car with a stick shift rolls backward on a steep hill (light changes from red to green) and hits the car behind it. What kind of damage would there be to both cars involved? Assuming it's a steep San Francisco hill. Would the police be called to fill out an accident report? Or would the two parties just exchange info and be on their way? I'm looking for the most dramatic outcome while still being plausible. Thanks for any input.
posted by swheatie to Travel & Transportation (31 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
How far back is the "victim"? I assume the rolling car is in neutral (harder to reverse by accident) so it's really a question of how much it can speed up before it hits the second car.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 12:37 PM on January 18, 2017

Something that could happen is the second person in line has already taken foot off break and they also crash into person behind them, etc.
posted by beccaj at 12:38 PM on January 18, 2017

Another thought. Reverse in a stick shift is in different places in different cars. They could think they had it in 1st but instead it was in reverse and they pour on the gas trying to get it up the hill and slam backwards.
I had an alfa romeo that confused everyone.
posted by beccaj at 12:41 PM on January 18, 2017 [3 favorites]

I'm looking for the most dramatic outcome while still being plausible.

Personally, I would find it incredibly plausible for the most minor of fender-benders to escalate into the most dramatic outcome imaginable just because a lot of people are utter dickbags.
posted by Etrigan at 12:43 PM on January 18, 2017 [8 favorites]

This is in case you are mentioning a specific model or year of car. You should be aware that some newer cars have an arresting mechanism to prevent this happening. My mother-in-law's later model Ford Fiesta has this feature, so it isn't a luxury car feature either.
posted by Cranialtorque at 12:43 PM on January 18, 2017

It's doubtful the police would be summoned for something so trivial. Generally, the cops aren't called unless there's injury or one of the cars is disabled and impeding traffic. In your case, it's doubtful either car would be damaged much, let alone disabled.

Worst case, a solid enough hit might be enough to set-off the second car's airbags.

FWIW, there are cars (such as Subarus) that have hill-holding mechanisms in their manual transmissions that will not allow the car to slip backwards down a hill.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:44 PM on January 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Probably a slight dent on the bumper, but that can be deceptively expensive. I backed into someone a few years ago (on flat land), and the claim was like $1500.

It really depends on the people involved whether the police would be called. I've been in situations like this several times, and the outcomes have ranged from nobody calling the cops and just driving off, to one person calling the cops but not filing an incident report, to calling the cops and getting ticketed. If both people are chill, they could just exchange info and drive off. If one's a dick, they could make it pretty annoying for the other.

"while still being plausible" "the second person in line has already taken foot off break"

It is not plausible that there would be two stickshift cars in a row. Nobody drives stick anymore.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:45 PM on January 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Very helpful everyone! The year is 1984 so I don't have to concern myself with possible mechanisms that would prevent this scenario. Other thoughts are welcome.
posted by swheatie at 1:00 PM on January 18, 2017

If the cars were old enough that they didn't have the hill arrest system, then if they weren't aligned exactly, then the worst case I can see is a smashed headlight and a dented bumper - nothing dramatic. It would be impossible to set off the air bags in either vehicle in that sort of collision or do any serious damage.

However - to go with your premise a little and echo the road rage aspect - a broken headlight/smashed plastic grill could certainly look dramatically damaged enough to create a plausible serious issue between the two drivers. It's likely only going to be $2k damage (unless one is a luxury car) in the absolute worst case, but people have got violent for less.

The only reason police would be called in any part of the world that I have driven regularly in is if the ensuing argument caused a traffic issue - ie the arguing and refusal to move caused a snarl up. The damage and lack of likelihood of injury would preclude a cop being called for any other reason. Why not have the cop on one of the crossing streets at their own light and see the altercation and get involved from that perspective?
posted by Brockles at 1:01 PM on January 18, 2017

Nobody drives stick anymore.

No one who drives a new car drives stick (for the most part, since about 4% of cars in the US sold nowadays are stick) but if you're in a 1984 they absolutely would. Also another fail mode that I was going to suggest (messy costly airbag deployment, potentially with some of those killer airbags still in cars today) would not be happening in 1984.

The real way to make that sort of accident a disaster is hitting a person or animal, not a car. Or a cop car? Or have the car behind it roll back and hit the car behind it, etc.
posted by jessamyn at 1:02 PM on January 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

If the person in front has an SUV or pickup with a trailer hitch and the person behind has a regular car, the trailer hitch can do an impressive amount of damage at very low speed(poke hole in radiator, coolant goes everywhere, etc).
posted by rockindata at 1:05 PM on January 18, 2017 [5 favorites]

It's doubtful the police would be summoned for something so trivial. Generally, the cops aren't called unless there's injury or one of the cars is disabled and impeding traffic. In your case, it's doubtful either car would be damaged much, let alone disabled.

I'm going too disagree with this. I was recently in an accident. My legally parked, empty car was hit t-bone style by someone backing out of a driveway. The person was shocked that I wanted the police. I'm going to trust a complete stranger to follow through? Hell no. I got the police there to have a record of his fault, to submit to his insurance company. My car was totally driveable, no injuries, and on a residential street.

In terms of escalation, anything can happen. The person at fault can drive away. Even if the cops are called, doesn't mean that person is a licensed driver and insured. Maybe the person gets upset that you want to call the police and it escalates into violence. Maybe the hit was hard enough to cause medical problems for the drivers. Maybe the driver was putting on mascara and ended up stabbing herself in the eye. Oh, the possibilities are endless if you want to go there!
posted by archimago at 1:08 PM on January 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

The year is 1984

Then there's a good chance person in car #2 spilled their cocaine and now they're pissed.

It's doubtful the police would be summoned for something so trivial.

The police will generally show up if someone calls them, even if there are no injuries. So in even a minor accident one person, either someone involved or a bystander, might call the police. Having the police show up can turn a minor thing into a major event if someone, say, doesn't have a license or insurance or perhaps has something illegal in their car.
posted by bondcliff at 1:10 PM on January 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

I had a traumatic experience driving up Divisadero St. with my old manual. Did you know that it's possible to not be strong enough to pull the e-brake hard enough to stop the car rolling backwards on a steep-ass incline?

Luckily the cars behind us gave us space, but this resulted in two fire drill switcheroos, a lot of panic-shouting, and a very stinky burnt clutch.
posted by blueberrypuffin at 1:18 PM on January 18, 2017

When I was a kid, my dad in a pickup truck rear ended another pickup going ~10mph. The truck in front of us had a long trailer hitch and the hitch punched through the front chrome grill, the radiator, messed up some part of the AC system, and bent some stuff so the serpentine belt no longer would stay on it's track. Our truck had to be towed, but the car we ran into just had some paint transfer on the hitch ball.

I think the repair was over $5K and this was the late 90s.
posted by TomFoolery at 1:29 PM on January 18, 2017

I would focus on the social interaction between the two drivers. The damaged car's driver could have a child in the front seat -- he's not injured, but during the course of exchanging information etc his father has secretly instructed the child to pretend he has been injured, yet the hoax is completely obvious to the at-fault driver etc.
posted by user92371 at 1:35 PM on January 18, 2017

The car in back, a Volkswagen Beetle, is hauling nitroglycerin in its front mounted trunk...
posted by BeeDo at 1:38 PM on January 18, 2017 [2 favorites]

Something similar happened to me once. I was in a Honda CRX (stick, though I was braked while this happened) getting on the on-ramp to the freeway - slight downward slope. The pickup truck in front of me decided not to take the exit ramp and put his vehicle into reverse. He backed so far up onto my hood that his rear bumper cracked my windshield. The only part of our reaction that I remember was him getting out of his truck and telling me, "it looks like you slid under me."

This was about 1996 or so, no police were called.
posted by bendy at 1:40 PM on January 18, 2017

Great ideas, everyone. Thank you. This gives me a lot to work with. I'm quite partial to the mascara wand in the eye -- thanks, archimago -- though not sure I can work it in. Also seems that no matter how extensive the damage, the interaction could very well turn prickly, so good to be reminded of that. I'll keep checking the thread to see what else pops up. Thanks again.
posted by swheatie at 1:43 PM on January 18, 2017

In 1984 you couldn't fill out an auto accident report online, so calling the police was the only way to get that proof that the insurance company would invariably ask you for but sigh and give in when you said you didn't get one (but you were supposed to get one). But it was also traditional then to attempt to leave insurance out of it and try to negotiate repair/reimbursement privately, which often did go very poorly and result in all kinds of intense interactions.

But yeah, people have a lot of anxiety wrapped up in their cars - can't afford another one right now, need it to get to work, borrowed from someone, indicator of status or in-group membership, the various reasons one might not want interact with police at that moment, etc - and people get killed over the tiniest incidents still. It doesn't take much.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:47 PM on January 18, 2017

1984, you say?

Make the car in front a 1970's Pinto, with the exploding gas tank!

Also, make the car from behind a bit further back, coming up the hill, and that driver distracted by something, an argument, or squirrel, something on the sidewalk, and thus the collision would cause the gas tank to explode. They were known to explode at low speeds, so it doesn't have to be too fast. But the cops would be called for sure.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 1:48 PM on January 18, 2017

I have been on both sides of this scenario. I have rolled back and been rolled back into. It was in '81 and the late 80s respectively. When I rolled back, I was learning to drive a stick in a beat up pickup. For my girlfriends truck, there was no discernible damage that could be attributed to this incident. (There truck had enough dings and dents everywhere already.) The car behind was a newer model Chevy Monte Carlo iirc, it had a small ding in the plastic bumper which I reached behind and pushed out. While we did exchange insurance info, neither of us pursued any claim. (It did turn out to be the husband of one of my professors, so there is that.)

When I was rolled into, I was driving an F-150 pickup. I actually anticipated it by having been behind the car previously for a few blocks. I actually had inched up because I did not want a long roll back and because if she bumped into me, I could support her car as she shifted and lifted the clutch. No damage to either car.

Also, I lived in Marin for a short period and am very familiar with driving in SF and on her hills. While it is steep, I doubt much damage would be done to two cars that are structurally solid. I do agree that depending on the two drivers, a hot head could cause an incident or make a mountain out of a mole hill so to speak.
posted by AugustWest at 1:50 PM on January 18, 2017

One small point, make sure the car isn't a Saab! You can't take the key out of the ignition unless the car is locked in reverse. So in case of a handbrake failure it wouldn't be rolling anywhere.
posted by derbs at 2:02 PM on January 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

This has happened to me; my car was the one which began sliding backwards. The car behind honked when I began coasting so I pushed hard on the brake, and the result was only a light tap. The 1987 Barfly movie replicated my situation, only it was Mickey Rourke making out with Faye Dunaway at the traffic light, and when he became distracted and let his foot off the brake, slightly, I think he hit the car behind with a little more force.
posted by Rash at 3:29 PM on January 18, 2017

Worst case scenario: The vehicle in back is a motorcycle. Driver gets wickedly fucked up, even at low speeds. Ambulance is called. He will be hospitalized, require surgery and may lose his lower leg.

Source: Processed accident insurance claims for 5+ years.
posted by Michele in California at 3:33 PM on January 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

make sure the car isn't a Saab!
There is nothing stopping a Saab rolling back at an uphill traffic light if the handbrake fails. You'd be in neutral or in first gear with the clutch down so the reverse key lock would be irrelevant.
posted by Brockles at 3:53 PM on January 18, 2017

Car in front a pickup, preferably of the jacked up 4x4 variety. Car behind a low slung sports car preferably of wedge styling (Fiero, TR7, Esprit, Countach, Lancia Stratos) and the truck will basically roll right over the hood up to the windshield, or further. All sorts of excitement as you move up the valuation chain.

bondcliff: "The police will generally show up if someone calls them, even if there are no injuries. "

This varies; around here with no visible damage it's unlikely you would see a cop. You'd get follow up phone call at some later date where they'd make available a report # but that's about it.
posted by Mitheral at 5:55 PM on January 18, 2017 [1 favorite]

Maybe the driver was putting on mascara and ended up stabbing herself in the eye. Oh, the possibilities are endless if you want to go there!

Another similar scenario, since you said you liked this idea. I'm in the habit of using those little plastic toothpick/floss things (like this) while driving to/from work. I'll use it when I'm stopped, but then I've been known to hold it between my teeth in between lights*. It has definitely occurred to me that if I rear ended someone or hit something or someone hit me that I could end up inhaling that toothpick thing, and it's quite sharp. So that's another bad thing that could happen.

*I have a relatively short commute with lots of traffic lights and my speed usually maxes out at 25 mph fwiw.
posted by litera scripta manet at 6:23 PM on January 18, 2017

There was an episode of House where the serious medical mystery was due to an inhaled toothpick. You could look that up for inspiration if you like the idea.
posted by Michele in California at 6:28 PM on January 18, 2017

"The most dramatic outcome" is a pretty broad order. For purely physical mayhem:

Older vehicles, where the bumpers were more discrete (instead of largely built into the rest of the body as today) fender-benders could cause one bumper to ride over or under the other, locking the two cars together. It would require a couple of jacks (or, since it's on a sharp hill, more likely a tow truck or two) to safely unlock them without causing more damage.

However, if the person in front didn't realized they were locked together and gunned it (as someone who has driven a stick in San Francisco, is quite likely since you're already set up to do so) they could easily rip one or more bumpers off and cause quite a surprising amount of damage.

When airbags were new, a simple low-energy jolt like a fender-bender could set them off. An airbag going off in one's face (particularly at a stop sign) is really kind of awful.

In modern day San Francisco, the police won't show up to an accident unless there's an injury. I think it's been that way for around a decade. Typically the participants collect contact info from any witnesses who have hung around and felt like sharing. Insurance companies will follow up.

In olden day San Francisco, it wasn't unheard of, at a steep stop, to let one's car carefully roll back and rest against the bumper of the car behind. The logic being that if I'm already kissing you nicely, there's no chance that I can pop you rudely.
posted by Ookseer at 12:20 AM on January 19, 2017

Car #1 has been filled with tainted gasoline. As a result the car has been stalling or near stalling upon idling. This means that the driver tries to get going too fast in order not to be idling for long, which is why they muff the take off and roll back into the car behind them. Once the get-out-of the-car-gosh-I-am-so-sorry-here-is-my-name business is processed they discover that Car #1 has stalled again decisively and they are both going nowhere, and neither are the line of cars behind them.

One of the two cars has a car seat in the back. As was a common error in the 1980s the car seat is not actually fastened down with the seat belt. The jolt from the accident causes the car seat to flip forward so that it is head down in front of the seat. The driver of the first car is horrified. There does not have to be a kid in the car seat.

The driver of car number one sees that they will block the intersection if they try to exchange information there, so she or he gestures for car #2 to follow and goes to try to find a place to park. There is no place to pull over or park. (For realism have one of the two be circling the block to find a parking spot when the accident happens.) They have to drive around for awhile. The driver of car #2 gets increasingly anxious and/or suspicious while following, particularly as driver #1 passes several parking spots - which, having room for only one car to park, would have resulted in the other car having to block traffic or drive on.

The driver of car #3 behind them has an over the top reaction, verbally attacking both of the people involved in the fender bender for bad driving which he describes in detail.

The driver of car #1 is too nervous to get out and speak to driver #2. Perhaps the driver of car number #2 is a really big, scary looking guy, or has a bumper sticker saying that they support AIDS research, or gay rights, or is wearing a security guard uniform, or looks like abusive Aunt Caroline and gives driver #1 a flashback.

One of the drivers has a cell phone. It is for THIS reason that they have a cell phone. They finally have a reason to use their cell phone! (People got cell phones despite the big price because they wanted to be able to call from the car if they got stranded. The units didn't work away from the car because they required the aerial that was mounted on the outside of the vehicle. - Or one of the cars has a dummy cell phone aerial to fool the world into the thinking the driver can afford a cell phone. These were also common - and the second driver asks the driver of the car that has an aerial but no cell phone to make a call for them.

One of the two drivers is on their way to a nearby location - work, most plausibly. A third driver, also on their way to the same location, sees that they have been involved in an accident and stops to lend support. This third driver could be someone awful such as a married man who has a creepy crush on a female character, and the last thing they want is more contact with this person, so the other driver involved in the accident helps them wriggle free from the low-grade stalkers attempts to insert themself into the situation.

One of the drivers had a cup of cold coffee in the vehicle. The coffee spilt on them. They are soiled and embarrassed and have to go home and change.

One of the drivers is mildly injured, as in - "I bit my tongue!" We are not looking at a must-go-to-hospital type scenario, but an "Ow, ow, ow, give me a moment" type of scenario. I prefer this to the mascara wand as that requires one of the participants to be either a drag queen or female AND the type of person who does makeup in the car, and if they are to be a recurring character they have to remain the type of person who puts make-up on in the car. The injury could instead involve a cigarette that got dropped.

One of the drivers was wearing glasses. When the vehicles collided their glasses were knocked off. When it is time to resume they can't find their glasses, which they require to legally drive. A search ensues which could turn up interesting items under the seat, either embarrassing or sinister, or whatever you need to foreshadow the incoming plot or build character.

The accident creates a chain reaction. Each car slides back to bump the car behind it. This is plausible if there is ice and people are not used to it and don't have winter tires. To make it really bad a pedestrian who was crossing between the stopped cars could get hit by a car that deliberately backs up to avoid the jolt of the car in front. Your two drivers and their cars do not have to be car #1 and car #2 in this scenario, they could be any sequenced pair of vehicles in the pile up.

They smell gas. They remember the fiery Pinto crashes on the recent news and evacuate both cars and don't let anyone go through the intersection until the firetrucks can come and determine that the gas smell is the result of a gas line cracked in the accident, and that the car with the broken gas line can be safely towed.

One of the two drivers is now going to be late. They either become distressed, or they suddenly decide to take the day off, since they can't make their commitment anyway.

One of the two drivers becomes afraid of the bystanders, perhaps including some homeless people who stop to stare and fears that they will be robbed. They insist that they both get into one of the cars with the doors locked to exchange information.
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:38 AM on January 20, 2017

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