What I learned… smashing up my hire car in Hawaii

There is nothing more terrifying than a head on collision with another car. It’s even worse when the car isn’t yours. And it’s even worse when you are a long way from home… and from your family, your friends, your doctors, your hospitals and your insurance companies. This was the terrible ending to a fantastic ten days in Hawaii.

We had hired a small car from Thrifty to drive around Big Island. When we collected it from the airport I ticked yes for third party property insurance, but no for ambulance insurance and collision damage waver, or as us Australian’s call it – comprehensive car insurance as these were covered in my travel insurance policy. Or so I thought.


Our little red Nissan, you were such a good car


Now I need to mention that this was the sixth time I had driven in North America, so I was pretty adept at driving and navigating the other wrong side of the road. Since the car and insurance was under my name, my partner happily let me do nearly all of the driving… and he trusted me given my past performances driving him on the right side of the road.

This holiday was no different. I successful navigated our little red Nissan all around the Big Island of Hawaii, through lava fields, past waterfalls, over volcanoes and alongside beaches. But on our third last day, after a huge morning of swimming with dolphins and a relaxing afternoon getting sun burnt on beautiful beaches; disaster struck.


The day that we had our highlight of the trip – swimming with dolphins, was also the day we had our lowest moment


We were heading out for dinner and were hungry, sun burnt and irritable – we had been up super early and hadn’t eaten much all day. There were not many restaurant options near where we were staying so we looked one up, an Italian restaurant, and drove about 15 minutes to the location on the main ring road of the island. We went past the restaurant and I pulled into a car park to turn around. We were bickering (I was hangry probably) about missing the turn off and the fact that the venue didn’t even look open. I pulled out onto the main road from the driveway and had one of those ‘ooh which side of the road do I want?‘ moments as I teetered in the middle of the road.

Now I found driveways and roundabouts to be the moment that I had a little mind blank about where I was turning. This night was no different, and normally after a few seconds you remember (oh the right side…) and straighten up. The problem was that I didn’t have a few seconds as a car (well more like a pick up truck) was heading straight for us, I was halfway on his side of the road and in my panic, I panicked and swerved left. Because in Australia, you’d swerve left to avoid the middle of the road. But swerving left in the USA took our little red Nissan straight into the path of the oncoming white UTE.

I shudder as I type this as I can still hear the bang of our cars connecting. I can still hear my partner’s weird shout/scream. If I close my eyes sometimes I can still see the smashed windscreen and headlights of the bigger car, right up in the bonnet of ours. The memory of that moment – like a dream where you think; ‘no, this can’t be happening to us’. Not on our holiday! Surely this isn’t real…


The front of our hire car after the smash


Well once I had established that IT WAS REAL, and that I was alive and not badly injured (by running my hands down my body tapping my legs while saying “I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay”) I then turned to my partner to check if he was okay. He looked like he’d been shot, as his airbag had hit him hard in the chest. I hadn’t even realised the airbags had gone off, it was such a new car and had very good safety features… for which we are very thankful. The airbags had blown out and retreated so quickly I hadn’t noticed. None of that giving you black eyes, smothering your face behaviour which I had heard airbags could do.

My partner said he was okay, and he was moving and talking, so my next thought turned to the other car. Oh god, I killed someone! I thought. I got out of the car, brushed off the glass and then winced in agony, my whole chest and stomach ached. But  I wasn’t broken anywhere so I ran around the car to check on the passengers in the other car. I feared the worse – children, elderly people, and my guilt was rising. A lone man, about 60 climbed out and looked at me bewildered. I began shouting – “Are you okay? Who else is in the car?” He must of thought I was crazy, this loud Australian woman who came onto his side of the road while he was driving and minding his own business and who was now shouting at him.

As his car was much bigger than ours he seemed to not have any injuries, so I ran back to our car to get my partner out. His door was jammed shut in the damage so he had to climb out my side, and then he collapsed on the ground in shock. The immensity of what had happened was starting to sink in, as people came rushing out of a nearby church to assist us, the police arrived and I noticed we had shut down the entire highway in both directions, which was the core ring road around the island.


The passenger side of the car. Not for the fainthearted…


An ambulance arrived and my partner was taken inside for a check over. I was in ‘crisis management mode’ running around taking pictures, talking to witnesses, giving police statements etc. At one point I found myself in the front of the car collecting our belongings and looking for the car key, thinking I had to return it to the car hire company. Clearly they wouldn’t be needing the key as I had written the car off, but your brain doesn’t think straight in these circumstances.

The paramedics cleaned up my bloody arms and hands that had been cut when the windscreen smashed. I was negotiating with the police what would happen next, and since my partner seemed okay (he wasn’t really, I should not have listened to him..) we opted not to go to the hospital, thinking we were just a bit bruised and in shock. The police said I might receive an infringement for going on the wrong side of the road, but not to worry, as I wasn’t a US citizen they said I could just not pay it. Weird advice from the police officers but on the night it wasn’t high on my priority list.

It was about this time that I started to stress about the logistics of the end of our holiday, that is – how do we get around? Big Island Hawaii isn’t really leading the way with Uber, taxis, buses, and we were a good 15 minutes drive back down the coast, away from major towns. How would we get to the airport? We had no one who could do us a favour and drive us anywhere, or bring us food etc. I was panicking about this so the police officer kindly offered to drive us both back to our AirBnB accommodation and we would sort out tomorrow, well tomorrow.

But before we could get out of there, a tow truck arrived that Thrifty had sent, as they must have a system that tracks any of their vehicles in an accident, I suppose when the police put in the licence plate number. He said he was taking us and our smashed up car back to the Thrifty depot where they would give us a replacement car. A replacement car? They were ballsy, after my head on collision in the current car. The last thing we wanted to do was drive in the tow truck with our bruises and aches and pains 45 minutes to the depot and then an hour home!

But nonetheless, with no one else to look after us, we had no choice but to farewell the police and the nice people who helped us, and the older guy in the car we hit and head off to Thrifty. I was panicking about insurance and costs, but everyone said don’t worry, you’ll be covered. We arrived at the airport at the car hire depot, what a sight we were, driving in with this terrible wrecked car and both of us limping in, holding ice packs and wincing! Everyone waiting with their suitcases took one look at us and said – “after you guys”.

It was now about 9.30pm and we were starving, sunburnt, thirsty and tired. The lovely people at Thrifty gave us water and trail mix while we sorted out the car. They just gave me keys and sent me on my way! What about the car? Will I have to pay? They nonchalantly said don’t worry about that, Thrifty will be in contact if you need to pay anything. Hmmm, sounds ominous.

Next thing I knew I was driving another hire car, white knuckled, clutching the steering wheel, crying, while my partner sat in the back, still wincing in pain. We had to drive the hour back to our Airbnb, past the hospital…

“Are you sure you don’t want to go to hospital?” I asked.

“No I just want to go home…” he replied.

We continued driving,  past the crash site which was now all cleared, all the way to our accommodation. It was now about 11pm and I rang my travel insurance company in Australia to report the car accident and double check that I was covered for any damage. They were non committal to tell me anything, just like Thrifty. That should have been another sign. They asked if we were injured, and I said yes, we had bruises, sore chests from air bags, minor cuts. They said you need to go to hospital, I was like no no, we just need to rest. Besides we had no one to look after us so going to hospital meant I had to get back behind the wheel. No thank you!

Then they delivered the deal breaker – “If you don’t go to hospital none of your claims will be covered”. Dammit. I had to get my partner up, under duress, and back in the car, with a pillow strapped to his chest, at midnight and drive back to the hospital, back through the crash scene (eyes closed)…

We arrived at Kona hospital at 12.30am, and I checked my partner in as he was in a  lot of pain and had bad chest pains. And he was complaining a lot, mainly about how I tried to kill him in a head on. Such fun. He got checked in (after I reassured him that yes we do have travel insurance  and hospital cover) and they sent him off for an x-ray, as they thought he might have a broken collarbone.

At this point it was 1am, I was sitting alone by his bed when I started to inspect my bruising. My right chest was coming up pink and purple, as was my stomach from side to side, both from the seat belt. My chest hurt from the airbag, and I had a bruise coming up from knee to ankle on my left leg. A nurse came in and said;

“Are you with the MVA patient?” (MVA meaning motor vehicle accident)

“Yes, I was in the accident too” I replied.

She asked if I was okay and I said I’m bruised and sore. She shut the door and said, “Give me a look”. I lifted my top to show her the stomach and chest bruises. She made a nasty face and said, “Oh honey let’s get the doctor”.


Half of my stomach bruise, four hours after the accident


Next thing I know I’m in my own bed in emergency and the doctor want’s me to have a scan for internal bleeding. By this time my partner was given the all clear, no breaks, and given some pain medication so he was all keen to go home. I was all like “I’m over here babe,” and he found me in my own bed in emergency. So he was now discharged and had to sit in the chair next to me and wait all night. It was that or drive himself home and come back for me, which after the events of the night was not an appealing option, no one wanted to be back behind the wheel!

After a CT scan I was also given the all clear and we were both sent home, being told we were able to fly in two day’s time. We got home about 4 in the morning, once again driving through the crash scene, once again white knuckles gripping the steering wheel. Once we got home I had to call the insurance company again, then called my mum and of course I was a blubbering mess. It was then time to try and sleep, both of us in so much pain we could barely move, the bed was raised and we looked like a pair of ninety year olds trying to climb in and out of it!


My view, lying in Kona hospital


The next day was raining thankfully, so we weren’t wasting the day. We spent the day resting, looking at our bruises, eating cookies, ice cream and juice as I refused to get behind the wheel for a whole day, not even to go out for food. Our accommodation was near an old historic church so we wandered up the road to check it out, moving very, very slowly. We had a few phone calls home, back and forth, and to the insurance company again.

Thank goodness it was the end of our trip and we had done so many amazing things already. There were quite a bit of tears, mainly from me. I had held it together all through the crash scene and hospital visit, but the following day I was a mess. My body was purple from the chest to pelvis, and down one leg. Neither of us could move, bend, hug, lie, shower, sleep or sit with any comfort.

The following day we headed to the airport, once again having to drive the 40 mins along the ring road, and for the last time, through the crash scene. I made my partner sit in the front seat and coach me all the way, making sure I was always on the correct side of the road. I was so relieved to get out of the car and literally chucked the keys at Thrifty. They still had no news about the car insurance and if I had to pay anything, they were all like ‘oh don’t worry they’ll send you a bill’. Comforting. We had an uncomfortable flight back to Honolulu, I couldn’t even bend to pick up my suitcase.

We only had one afternoon and night in Waikiki before we would fly to Sydney the following morning. Thankfully we  got a hotel upgrade, my partner stoked that we got a Nintendo player in the room. After lunch at the beach we spent the afternoon relaxing separately in the ways we knew best, him lying in bed playing Nintendo, me visiting the mall. Though I discovered that shopping with a badly bruised body was not a good idea, I couldn’t try on any clothes. We spent the night trying to find a late night chemist for pain relief and to get scripts for our flight home.


A short walk to the beach was all we could manage in Waikiki


The next morning at the airport (at 5am or something ridiculous) I tried to get an upgrade to business class so we could spend the nine hour flight in comfort, given our sore bodies. What a bad idea. Not only did we not get an upgrade, they decided to ground the plane for an hour while a doctor came on the plane to check our vitals to make sure we were fit enough to fly, despite my assurance that we had been out of hospital for 3 days (apparently you can’t fly within 48 hours of being in hospital?) and that we were okay. Nonetheless, the doctor came on and we had 400 passengers giving us the evil eye because we delayed the flight. It was mortifying! Not to mention that we didn’t look that injured, no plaster or bandages.

I spent the next 9 hours hiding behind my eye mask and book, just desperate to get home and be somewhere familiar with friends and family. The day after we got home I headed to my doctor to get a full check up, since my leg bruising had become infected and I needed antibiotics. I had a few days off before returning to work, and luckily within a month all bruising and pain that we suffered had cleared up, except for my knee which stayed numb for months and has never been right since. I’ve lost the ability to kneel with my bottom sitting on my heels.

So just as we had begun to heel completely, the bills started arriving. Medical bills came first. My trip to emergency and a CT scan had cost $7000 US dollars and my partner’s visit and x-ray cost $5000. Luckily we had travel medical insurance. Turns out we didn’t need it as the State of Hawaii has an accident medical cover up to the cost of $10000, for anyone who has a car accident – driver, passenger, resident, tourist or otherwise. Seemed easy, but that meant we had to send all the bills that we received from Kona Hospital to a legal company in Hawaii, who were acting on behalf of the company.

It was obviously a slow process as we kept getting bills sent from the hospital, then we had to ring overseas and explain what was happening. The hospital accounts department were still expecting us to pay so they kept sending us bills, then we got debt collector notices. The whole process went on for about 7 months.

And then there was the car. It turned out that I was not covered for the cost of damaging the car. I had not taken out the policy when I hired the car that would mean if I had an accident I would pay an excess. I didn’t take out the policy because my travel insurance had an excess included, which I thought took the place of the car hire company policy. My travel insurance company excess cover is designed to pay the excess on your behalf if you have an accident  provided you took out the policy.


So about 4 months after the accident, I got a bill or the car. It was a brand new car that I wrote off, valued at $15000 USD. The company had sold it for wreckage at $2000 and deducted that from the cost, meaning I owed $13000. This equated to about $19000 Australian dollars. Insert swear words here. I was not able to go on a payment plan where I could pay off each week, so I had to pretty much make a big payment in one go, and factor in the exchange rate so I didn’t pay too little. I had 3 months to make the payment, but after all the ongoing issues, I just wanted to put the accident behind me. So I borrowed money from the bank to make the payment, organised the transaction and closed the door on the great car accident of Big Island, Hawaii.


So what did I learn?

Well it was a pretty obvious big lesson in making sure you have all the insurances. Yes car hire companies like to try and get you to sign up for all the extras, and you think you’re being tricked into spending more, but the one time you might need it, it will be worth it. So make sure you are covered!

Modern cars save lives. I know we were lucky to walk away from the accident the way we did, thanks to the seat belts, airbags and the structural cabin of the car we hired. We didn’t even have any face bruising from the airbags they were that efficient.

People are nice to you when you are in trouble. So many Hawaiian locals and community workers reached out and helped us, offered sympathy and advice, everything from bringing us food, offering to drive us places. I have never felt so far from friends and family so it was nice to have kind people help us when we needed it most.

My confidence when driving on the other side of the road has been knocked. I am not sure if I will ever drive on the right again, even though we love doing road trips while on holidays. When I went to Western Samoa, eighteen months after this trip, I let my friend do all the driving on the other side of the road, as I still wasn’t confident. I did hire a car (with insurance thank you) in New Zealand a few months ago, but they drive on the left like we do in Australia.

I have not been back to North America yet. When the time comes we will see if I get behind the wheel, or if my partner wants to get behind the wheel.

Who knows, the USA may not let me in, as I still may have an outstanding infringement notice …


So anyway, which way to the bus?









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