“When surgeon’s drawing lines on skin, trust/ When you board the plane and strap yourself in, trust/ It’s easy to understand we hold each other’s lives in our hands/ Don’t betray my trust”
— The Bears, “Trust” (1987)
One of the main things that holds our society together is trusting one another. We, as humans, rely on other humans to follow established rules and do their “jobs,” whether it’s a surgeon, a pilot, a cop or a politician (go ahead, giggle).
Many of us experience this “faith in humanity” daily, every time we put key in the ignition and drive a car. We put our trust in fellow motorists and assume they will follow the rules of the road. I haven’t read an anarchist manifesto in a while, but I would guess that even those in favor of little-to-zero laws would agree that most traffic laws are a necessity.
Driving is a microcosm of our trust-reliant society.
About a decade ago, my trust in other motorists was shattered. Driving back to Cincinnati from Northern Ohio during the holidays, with traffic and construction conveniently in full flow, I moved into the fairly tight passing lane just as the car in front of me was also merging. As I looked in my rearview mirror right after the lane switch, I noticed a vehicle fast approaching. I trusted that the driver noticed the relatively high-speed yet still bumper-to-bumper traffic in front of him. I trusted he saw me riding my brakes to keep a modest distance from the vehicle in front of me.
My faith exploded as the car behind me kept its higher rate of speed and ultimately smashed into my back bumper, shooting me into the car in front of me, which shot that car into the vehicle in front of it. Gathered in the grassy center median, we gave each other that look — part “Is everyone OK?” and part “All right, who wasn’t following the rules?”
After that, I became a highly alert “defensive driver.” Being hyper-aware allowed me to more clearly observe the bad habits of others. The new driving quirks that have built up over the past 10 years are, of course, largely the result of our reliance and/or addiction to our mobile devices. Where once we had only the radio or maybe a hamburger to distract us, today we also have phone calls, Facebook statuses, tweets and texts to pull our eyes and attention from the road.
I’ve kept track of these new bad driving habits in my head over the years. There’s, for example, the “wavering speed driver,” which usually turns out to be someone engrossed in a phone conversation. One of the more annoying new habits is the “two-car-lengths stopper,” those drivers who coast up to a stop light, then drop anchor a good 10-20 yards behind the car in front of them, usually so they can finish reading or writing on their device. Honk your horn to let them know the light has changed and they usually give you that look of “I’m on the phone, asshole!”
Another related quirk is the “stop-light coaster,” the person who, when confronted with a series of consecutive traffic lights, chooses to roll at a turtle’s pace from one stop to the next, no matter how many cars are behind them. “What’s the rush to get from one stop light to the next?” you may be asking. It disrupts the flow of traffic. Instead of, say, 15 cars making it through a light, maybe half get through.
Weirdly, not all of these new bad habits are tech-related. It’s been suggested to me that the “coast” is a good way to save gas, for example. (If you’re one of these cheapskates, let me know — I’ll give you a nickel a month and then you can drive properly, OK?) There’s also the “precious protector of oversized small-penis substitutes” — those with gigantic all-road vehicles sporting tires taller than my car who come upon a railroad crossing or other bump and suddenly start driving in slo-mo, as if the whole vehicle was made of glass.
And there’s the “wide turn-er,” the motorist who seems to think that they must first swerve five feet left before navigating a successful right turn. This makes sense for a semi-truck driver; not so much for you and your VW Beetle.
My trust in other drivers has gradually built back up, but only because it had to. The anxiety of worrying about every single other driver on the road only serves to distract me and make me an equally lousy driver.
I still drive defensively. And I still do trust you … to an extent. What driving tells me about society is that many, many people are selfish assholes. The world revolves around them, especially when they’re in that isolated, deadly metal box. The saddest/scariest part is that they are mostly unaware.
As technology advances and becomes even more ingrained in our lives, with a new generation of drivers who only know the multi-tasking way of life, I fear for the future of traffic. All of it makes me want to age quicker so I can be one of those much-maligned elderly drivers. Most of them seem to have that same “selfish asshole” quality, but at least they’ve earned it.
CONTACT MIKE BREEN: [email protected] or @CityBeatMusic