They make me uncomfortable. Still, what choice do I have but to share the road with them? Brings to mind those underwater scenes of mammoth whales, sharks, or other predators maneuvering alongside clouds of much smaller fish, scores of which could, in an instant, easily end up as snack food. Am I not in a similar position, essentially at the mercy of these multi-wheeled modern mastodons? Sure the trucking industry is essential, the lifeblood of our economy, and no doubt truck drivers are skilled professionals, but just how much comfort is that when, out on the highway, I try to hold my own amidst these moving mountains all around me. Why, some have tires taller than my vehicle! Encased in my standard-sized car I am dwarfed by their magnitude.
Signs typically instruct trucks to keep to the right lane on highways, but many ignore such restriction. And so they’re everywhere and bent on getting ahead, no doubt regarding drivers like me as nuisances to be tolerated, intimidated, and in various ways pressured to get out of the way. Spot one in your mirror coming up swiftly from behind and even without a withering blast from his horn
you’ve no choice but to act. Either speed up or clear out of the lane, pronto. And as he flies on be prepared for that terrifying blast of air that sends your car into uncontrolled lateral sway, even as it moves forward.
Consider these additional dangers. Settled in behind a truck is equivalent to facing a wall. There’s no way to see past it, little chance to anticipate or prepare for what may be ahead. I worry too, whether the driver, seated in his lofty perch, even sees me or will take care to avoid any move that might put me in jeopardy. On a rainy day I’m concerned about the water shooting off his tires, often a blinding spray with an intensity to rival my local car wash. There’s added anxiety when I spot a highway sign warning of a steep descent and urging truckers to test their brakes. Visions of a huge truck in virtual free fall causes me to speed up at such times and prompts frequent mirror checks, ever on the lookout for potential runaways.
Not that we automobile drivers are without certain advantages. We’re easily more maneuverable than they are and generally speedier. Who doesn’t look forward to a hill, the opportunity to leave them behind? Same advantage after a light change; quick acceleration is generally beyond the capacity of most trucks. And remember, truckers are not necessarily our adversaries; indeed some are not unaware of our needs. Often enough they’ll move to the right upon realizing we wish to pass. On many an occasion they’ve motioned to me, signaling that it is safe to do so. At night most will promptly dim their lights once I’ve moved out in front of them. Coexistence you see is entirely possible; they’re not unwilling to share the highway with the likes of me and my fellow drivers.
Still, who isn’t much happier and more relaxed when driving along a road that does not allow these rigs? Who is not delighted to see them pulling off the highway into a truck stop or observe drivers napping along the side of the road? Sure they’re entitled to make a living, but I much prefer driving along without them; have enough to worry about contending with vehicles my own size.
Fender benders, roll overs, collisions, multi-car mayhem — it’s a rare day out on the road without witnessing or listening to reports detailing these and other such incidents. Danger, even disaster is an ever present reality along our roads and highways, reason enough for all of us to wish those starting out “a safe trip.”
While the .hazards of driving are indisputable, rarely noted and scarcely discussed is the marked frequency with which drivers narrowly skirt trouble, avoiding, by no more than a whisker, serious mishap. So even those seemingly unscathed can easily recall innumerable times when close calls left them shaken but immensely relieved to have escaped harm. Some manage to avoid serious damage and injury thanks to skill and rapid reflex; others offer no plausible explanation beyond sheer good fortune.
Trouble may lurk anywhere, erupt at any time but some situations present higher levels of risk. Consider for example the impatient drivers determined to enter a main thoroughfare who attempt to force the issue and induce other cars to yield by edging well out onto the road. One must, in response, swerve often at the last moment to avoid them, while praying there’ll be no oncoming cars in the adjoining lane. Equally dangerous is the situation created by drivers unwilling to wait before getting onto a busy highway. Is he planning to outrace the car traveling in the right lane or will he wait until it passes before slipping in behind? Such uncertainties generate confusion and a persistent pattern of near misses. The same holds true when drivers cut sharply ahead of you barely missing your front bumper. And that’s only because you reacted immediately, hit the brakes and by the barest of margins avoided contact.
Let’s also not forget about the driver traveling in the fast lane of a three-lane highway who decides to head over to the center just as another motorist on the far right makes the same decision. Both just manage, by swerving off at the last instant, to avoid colliding in the center lane. Another occasion finds you in your car at the end of a long work day, eyelids growing noticeably heavier. As you cruise along a straightaway, your eyes close, even as the car speeds forward. Was it for a second or two or perhaps more? You can’t be sure but you awaken with a start just as the vehicle begins drifting out of the lane. A few more moments…but you refuse to think about it.
Finally there’s the matter of your brakes. How frequently have you applied them and watched your car come to a stop within inches of an obstruction or vehicle up ahead? How often have you gone into a skid either on ice or wet surface and had your brake take hold an instant before impact? Virtually everyone knows “many times” to be the answer to both questions. And recall those instances when, assuming you were in neutral gear, your foot hit the accelerator, and the car lurched ahead or shot backward. Either you reacted quickly and found the brake in time or there was thankfully nothing or no one behind or in front of you. Once again a disaster was averted, but just barely. It’s important to be skilled, even better to be lucky.
It’s not just that slow drivers get no respect; it’s that they’re generally regarded with utter contempt. Speedsters may not command universal approval, still they are often viewed as skilled and admirably bold. Slow motorists on the other hand rarely escape being labeled timid, tentative and the probable cause of many an accident.
But beyond the labels, consider the abuse they’re subject to. React too slowly to a green light and horns will blare. Drive along a highway at a pace deemed sluggish and you’ll be greeted with flashing headlights and hateful honks. Persist in a slothful pace and vehicle after vehicle will promptly pass you. And observe the stares you’ll get – a mixture of concern and contempt on their faces. Crawl along and even your passengers will complain and demand that you explain such bizarre behavior. There is apparently no valid excuse for slow speeds.
Can anyone doubt that a more than subtle discrimination operates against slow drivers? Several road rules make this clear (and not just on highways posting minimum speeds). “Slow Traffic Keep Right” is after all not especially supportive. In effect it segregates such folks, instructing them to get out of the way, implying they don’t belong with the real drivers. If they’re going to limp along they’d best do it together, over on one side of the road. Other rules stipulate that cars driving slowly activate flashing lights to warn others that they are laggards (would that speedsters be required to signal they were going over the limit!)
Of course it is the Sunday Driver that traditionally has been the object of criticism and the butt of countless jokes. And his or her (note that gender bias no doubt operates in this area, the barbs about slow drivers often directed at women) principal offense has been the slow pace of advance. The Sunday driver is presumed to be an individual, often of advanced age who only occasionally takes to the road (mostly on Sundays) and is accounted an inexperienced and excessively cautious motorist. His or her presence is a provocation to ordinary drivers who line up impatiently behind and then pass on by at the first opportunity muttering all along about how certain people don’t belong on the roads. Ironically these would likely be the same people who, recognizing a good deal when they see it, rush to buy a certain used car, it being in excellent condition and with low mileage. And what clinched the deal? The fact that it belonged to a Sunday Driver!
It begins in a most ordinary way. I pull up to a light just turned red, apply the brakes, and coast comfortably to a stop. Behind me several other cars do likewise. And I wait, knowing the full light cycle must first complete itself before I can continue on my way. Still since no one likes to sit idly by, my eyes soon lock in on the signal, in anticipation of its imminent change over to green. But it remains red. Must be one of those long lights. Or maybe my timing’s off.
Sure seems overdue. But I’m not in the habit of ignoring stoplights. So I wait. And then I wait some more. The light has to be broken. And I’m beginning to feel foolish for waiting upon a mechanism clearly malfunctioning. But maybe it just skipped a cycle and will soon convert to green. It’s a theory worth checking out. But time for such speculations is running out. I hear a tentative honk from one of the cars behind. Moments later it becomes a rising chorus as several others back in the line join in. Clearly they’ve already arrived at a decision, determined what I must do. And as leader of the pack, their fate, for the moment at least, is in my hands. What if I defy the light, undeniably still red, and am caught? But haven’t I acted responsibly and waited a sufficient time? Besides the decision was not mine, but rather that of all those instigators clamoring behind me. So I give in and go. Looking both ways quickly and praying there’s no police car around I slink across the intersection, glancing at the same time in the mirror to see if, just at that moment, the light finally has changed. Fortunately it hasn’t. I did nothing wrong, did I?
It ranks among the most sobering sights you’re likely to encounter along the road, a disturbing tableau of isolation and helplessness. Reflected there, in microcosm, is one measure of our relentlessly onrushing society, one often with little time or patience for those who lag behind, meet with misfortune, or fall by the wayside.
You’ve come upon this scene many a time. A car broken down, immobilized on the road, hazard lights pulsing. The hood is up, the vehicle apparently smoking. The driver is either inside attempting to get it started or standing out in front, grim-faced, hoping somehow to get assistance. It’s a motorist’s worst nightmare, and there it is coming up straight ahead of you. To most drivers it’s a nuisance, an “obstacle” that has slowed them up, forced them to change lanes in order to pass on by. They may gaze over out of curiosity, perhaps even pity, but few are disposed to stop – “It’s too dangerous,” “I’m already late for work,” “What could I do anyway?” or “It’s his fault, he should have checked the car out.” Then the moment passes in an instant; it’s too late now. There’s no turning back.
You console yourself. He’ll get it started. Help will arrive. A cop’s certain to show up soon. Someone is bound to stop. He’s got to have a cellphone. No doubt one of these will happen at some point. But you can’t help but feel a bit guilty, at least until you reach the next bend in the road, and the marooned motorist is well out of sight.
Sure gives you reason to pause. And to consider how thin, even in supposedly advanced societies, is the veneer of civilization. Traffic lights make sense, right. Maybe not for strict Libertarians, but most of us can accept such restraints, both for the common good and to protect our precious and pricey vehicles.
Consider, for example, what can happen at an intersection when that traffic light stops working. In no time cars are backing up on all four corners with drivers “desperate” to get across. Stress levels rise, signaled by an impatient blare of horns. Have we reentered a state of nature? What are the rules now? Who is supposed to go? When?
First it’s a stalemate. Then a single vehicle boldly advances into the intersection, quickly followed by others directly behind. That in turn prompts a steady stream from the adjoining lane heading in the opposite direction. Those stopped along the cross street instantly realize they’ve been outmaneuvered, and they’re not happy. Why should they be forced to wait? It’s not fair!
So some pull out into the intersection and prepare to squeeze through the moving line and get across. Matters have become decidedly dicey. Now it’s every driver for himself, the advantage going to those with the loudest horns, the most brazen gaining the upper hand over those naturally more hesitant. Courtesies have disappeared, near collisions abound. Unless a policeman shows up soon to restore order and fairness, that crossroads could easily become a battle zone.
Call it government intervention, call it an infringement on personal liberty but that traffic light needs fixing – fast.
We really shouldn’t, but still we do. We’re human, we can’t help ourselves. We don’t mean to be but we are no doubt the cause of the trouble. Certainly we’re held responsible for the disruptions that inevitably follow. Nevertheless we will continue the habit, for it is not one easily overcome. We are, you see, with few exceptions, by nature, rubberneckers.
Rubbernecking is, of course, merely the mobile version of the human tendency to be curious. Traveling in our cars does not in any way diminish our attraction to what is out of the ordinary especially to sights that stimulate the senses and arouse the emotions. In fact it may intensify them since we’ve but a few seconds to take in the entire scene before we pass on by and it’s gone.
What we slow down to observe are almost always roadside scenes of misfortune, even mayhem. Police radar traps and their victims, disabled cars, twisted wreckage, overturned vehicles, debris on the roadway, ambulance lights flashing, the injured awaiting transport, state troopers on the scene-that’s the human drama we strain to take in. There we are, safe and secure in our own cars, vehicular voyeurs observing but briefly, the troubles of strangers, passing scenes that are often enough decidedly grim, even gruesome. Sobering these sights surely are. We insist young ones look away, remind everyone of the inescapable hazards of reckless driving, and express a measure of sympathy for the victims as we and all the cars around us slow down in an unconscious gesture of respect in the face of such visible distress.
But in short order we are past the scene. As rapidly and as unexpectedly as we carne upon it is as fast as we’re likely to forget about it. But the situation has not gone unnoticed. A succession of radio traffic reports will dutifully convert the disturbing scene we’ve witnessed into a cautionary bulletin. “Rubbernecking delays,” it will warn listeners, can be expected.
Someone stepping off the curb and getting behind the wheel of his car is no longer the same person. He now become a motorist, an automobile driver with an elevated sense of authority and an attitude, one strikingly different from what it was just moments before.
That he wants above all is to move freely and quickly and get to where he’s going. Now that he is no longer on foot, pedestrians for him represent obstacles, natural adversaries, certainly nuisances. Pedestrians impede his progress. They’re slow, whereas he is now swift. They congregate at street corners and spill out onto the road and so restrict his movement. He must stop so they may cross a thoroughfare he regards as rightfully his. Seemingly indifferent to his vehicle’s weight and power and his urge to move, they stroll past in casual fashion almost daring him to hit them. Elderly pedestrians move even more slowly than most, taking forever, it seems, to clear out of the way. Younger ones dash recklessly out from behind parked cars or cross streets even as the light is changing or has already turned green, leaving drivers with little choice but to jam on their brakes and swear up and down. Pedestrians are undeniably pests. But now remove the same guy from the car and put him back on his feet. Suddenly he’s a changed man. A pedestrian now, he has little sympathy for cars and their drivers. He waits impatiently at the corner for the red light and for the cars to stop. Why on earth is it taking this long?
Auto horns beeping noisily and cars belching foul fumes also anger him, as do those which come to sudden, screeching stops. On rainy days there’s the added hazard and ultimate indignity of a dousing by cars careening through nearby puddles. In pedestrian heaven automobiles surely would be banned.
He worries when it is an especially wide thoroughfare. Will he even make it across before the light changes and aggressive drivers shoot forward and cause him to quicken his steps to reach the safety of the curb?
Stepping off the curb puts him in enemy territory. He feels threatened both by cars which halt uncomfortably close to where he’s crossing, those turning sharply both in front and behind him, and those prematurely in motion anticipating a light change.
Your attitude all depends, you see on whether you’re in the driver’s seat or on your feet out on the street.
Real problems or false alarms, subtly disguised? There’s no way of knowing at first. Meanwhile expect more than a few anxious moments as you’re driving along.
Cruising down the highway altogether relaxed you suddenly hear and feel the car wheels begin bumping. Instantly you’re put on alert; you’ve had tire problems before. A flat at this point would be utterly dreadful. (You’re dressed up, the trunk is packed, and you haven’t checked the spare in ages.) But could it simply be you’ve come across a pitted or irregular stretch of roadway? The surface, in fact, does appear uneven. Still the car continues to roll along. Were the tire deflating, it should have been flat by now. You switch lanes hoping to discover a smoother surface. No difference, however. Fearing the worst, your grip on the steering wheel grows every tighter and you glance over at the side of the road. You may, in a few moments, be forced to pull over.
But then, as suddenly as it began, it disappears. All is smooth once more, tires registering a reassuring hum as you now accelerate to celebrate the joyful release from uncertainty and dread.
You’ve detected a distinct odor within the car. Repeated inhaling confirms it. Definitely cause for concern. A burning smell? Maybe. But whatever it is, it cannot augur well as you begin considering everything from frayed, smoldering wire and burst tubing to a medley of escaping gasses. Leaning forward, nose protruding, you systematically sniff along the surface of the dashboard hoping to uncover the source. Additionally all indicators are checked for possible clues. Is it getting worse? Hard to determine because by now repeated sniffing has blunted your olfactory capacities.
Rolling down the windows allows a stream of air to pour in. The hope is of course to discover an outside source for the malodorous intrusion. But the instant chill offers no clues. And with the windows closed once again, the odor yet remains. But the good news is there’s no smoke, no flame, no loss of power or any obvious mechanical multifunctioning. As the minutes pass you begin to breathe easier. The odor is less apparent, maybe even gone.
And so it is that auto mysteries can be set aside, need not be solved.
It has frequently been observed how often strangers, even when together in close quarters, rarely communicate, studiously avoid talking to each other. In theaters, elevators, buses, and airplanes, for example, people positioned but inches from one another will nevertheless keep entirely to themselves, avoid eye contact, exchange few if any words and then only when absolutely necessary. What has largely gone unnoticed is that intimates and relatives when in similar circumstances may not talk to one another either but will regard such silences as entirely natural, not in the least uncomfortable. Typically such rituals of reticence take place in automobiles. Even with three or four persons in the vehicle long stretches of time can elapse during which not a word will be exchanged.
What is it about automobile travel that can produce so curious a phenomenon? Some of it may simply relate to driving conditions. Heavy traffic, poor road surfaces, wet weather, uncertain directions, night travel—all can place a strain even on an experienced driver. To begin a conversation would likely distract him, obligate him to
respond, involuntarily turn his head in order to converse or even resort to hand gestures to emphasize a point. Maintain silence and you avoid such risks.
Then of course there is the radio, videos, CDs, or books on tape to watch or listen to. Aside from some preliminary talk about program preferences, recorded sound now fills the car and replaces conversation. Or it may instead be the play-by-play account and incessant chatter of baseball, football, or basketball commentators. Also not to be overlooked is the effect of passing scenery. Novel sights, an ever-changing tableau combine to concentrate the mind and substitute for talk. And most remarkably, once silence settles in, it tends to persist, erecting formidable obstacles to the resumption of conversation.
It is beyond dispute that a) the most potent conversation-stopper is sleep, and b) that the soporific effect of car travel is irresistible. Relaxed posture, inclined seats, comfortable temperature settings and the steady sound of the engine and hum of the roadbed all conspire to produce drowsiness and then sleep. And surely sleep is contagious. Watch one passenger fall off and predictably the others will follow suit. A prolonged period of silence usually indicates that all passengers have drifted off. The driver will now be reluctant to do anything that might awaken them (especially when children are involved). Accordingly he will turn off the radio, drive at a steady pace, avoid as best he can having to stop (for example by using automatic tolls) or blowing the horn, so firmly committed is he to this collective unconsciousness. Conversation will eventually resume somewhere down the road but for now—silence reigns.