Tuesday, April 5

You're Going Too Fast

I don’t remember the stream of consciousness that got me back to it, but I thought back to the touching story of Marty Erzinger (Benzinger) on my ride in this morning. And from that fairly tale of a Mercedes new car smell and a young(-ish) financial manager who succumbed to its wiles to my own interaction with traffic on a daily basis I strung together the following jumble of thoughts.

When you get behind the wheel and turn the key you've made a conscious choice. But in fact it is a series of choices that lead to the act of propelling a two ton beast down a narrow lane of asphalt. The sad tragedy is that the modern human has made driving an automobile second nature to a point where it is akin to walking for most. No thought goes into the minutia that allow Marty to step out his front door, sit down and then be whisked away, 30 miles or more to a magical place where he can fondle a plastic mouse all day and move symbols around on a flat screen.

It all goes back to a choice. Of course through our formative years the choice is made for us as we develop the conventional thinking that driving a car is a necessary act each and every day. By the time you wake up on April 5, 2011 to go to a job you've had for three, five or ten years, that choice to turn the key isn’t really a choice. It’s a habit, an ingrained function of movement. We take it for granted that getting from Point A to Point B is going to happen, and since its been made possible for the past few years by the use of a motor vehicle we assume that today and tomorrow and all the tomorrows to come will also involve the same forms of movement between the destinations of our lives.

What an absurd presumption.

And because driving as a component of our daily movement is so ingrained in us, we see impediments to driving as impediments to our personal "right" to move freely between places in the world. But in our human nature we go even beyond that. If we are barred from taking the SHORTEST and FASTEST route between Point A and Point B we feel as if our "rights" have been violated. Road construction on my normal route to work? How dare they! As if there aren’t typically many other alternate routes we can take to reach the same destination.

Its this very thing, this very pervasive presumption, that makes our society weak. The vast majority of Americans assume that tomorrow they are going to wake up, turn on the lights, take a hot shower, flip on the coffee maker and pop a bagel in the toaster and shuffle off to work in our Tahoes and Subarus. But what happens when the lights don’t come on? What happens when there are no more hot showers? How will you get your coffee and bagels when the store shelves are bare? Forget the Tahoe or the Subaru, you ain't going to work today.

This post was actually going to be about perceived entitlements on the road. You see where my thoughts take me.

Benzinger got out of his responsibilities because it was determined that he had no responsibilities. But I roundly disagree. Benzinger got behind the wheel. When he made that subconscious choice (but still a CHOICE) he had already made the one bad decision that would result in Steven Milo's debilitating injuries. But in the courts we're allowed to argue beyond the crucial choice and argue away responsibility. Oh, if only my father had gone into law and had been the sitting judge in Benzinger's case!

When I was learning to drive my father said: "If you're driving and you hit something with your car you were going too fast."

"But what if…" I countered. And to no avail. I could come up with not a single "What if?" that my father couldn't easily refute with a "you were going too fast." And I would even go beyond that and state that its not just the measured speed of your forward momentum that could be excessive, but that your mind and your attention were most likely going too fast. You were trying to do to many things at once.

When one of us is eating a burger, talking on the cell phone and curling our hair in the car we are rushing, and putting ourselves in a situation that we should not be in. If you can’t take the time to slow down, make you call when its appropriate, style your hair when its safe to do so and give your full attention to your driving, then not only have you made a choice to propel a huge piece of machinery down the road at a high rate of speed, but you've chosen to combine that nefarious act with others that further bring into question your judgment and reasoning.

"What if someone steps out in front of me?" I asked.

"You were going too fast to react to an unexpected situation." He countered.

"What if I hit a patch of ice?" I retorted.

"You should have been going slower because the roads were icy."

"What if they stop really fast?"

"You were following too close. You should have slowed down to give them more room."

"What if I didn’t have room to pass?"


"Yeah, what if there was a cyclist going really slow, like 20 miles an hour, and a car was coming the opposite direction and I didn’t have enough room to pass and I hit the cyclist?"

"You should have slowed down and waited until it was safe to pass."

"But I was in a hurry."

"Really? Where were you going?"

"To work."

"To work. How long would it have taken you to pass the cyclist safely?"

"A minute or two I guess. What does it matter? He was going too slow to be on the road. Roads are designed for cars!"

"What time did you get to work? Did you run from your car to the front door? Were you late? Did you have time to get coffee before work, chat with your co-workers?"

"Well…I, uh…"

Why can't we choose to SLOW DOWN instead of presuming that the only course of action when confronted with a slower moving vehicle in the roadway is to SPEED UP and try to pass as quickly as possible, threading the needle between oncoming traffic and the slower moving vehicle? And what defense does the motorist who clips a cyclist use in that situation?

It's not acceptable to endanger someone else's life because we made a poor choice. We got behind the wheel. Maybe we didn’t leave enough time to get to work at a reasonable speed allowing for unanticipated, though minor, inconveniences. Choice. Yeah, the timing was bad. There was a whole string of traffic coming the other way, but I made the choice to try and jam ahead of the cyclist and when I saw I had misjudged the speed and was going to hit the bus head on I HAD to swerve and hit the cyclist.

No, I made a bad choice. I am not absolved of the responsibility that goes with a handful of car keys because I got myself in a bad circumstance.

I've said for years that it’s too easy to get a driver's license. Too many people who have no business being behind a steering wheel drive every day. If you can’t keep the car between the lines then you have no business driving. If you can't start and stop the vehicle in COMPLETE control then you have no business being behind the wheel. If you can’t use sound enough judgment to keep from harming other people with your steel behemoth then you have no business being behind the wheel.

Our society subsidizes injury and death by allowing anyone and everyone to drive with very little evidence that they are able to do so responsibly or intelligently. Its so easy to get a drivers license that no one ever fears they will have to go their whole lives without obtaining one. It’s a given. And its odd that we call it a "rite of passage." Putting it in that context you would think some WOULD NOT be successful. Instead we begin breeding the sense of entitlements that undercut our nation's strengths when our children are hardly old enough to make sound judgments in a high speed fluid environment.

California is proposing a bill which states:

The driver of a motor vehicle overtaking a bicycle proceeding in the same direction shall pass to the left at a safe distance, at a minimum clearance of three feet, at a speed not exceeding 15 miles per hour faster than the speed of the bicycle, without interfering with the safe operation of the overtaken bicycle.

A good point to put into law, though one which will enrage the DIY driving hairstylists and "It doesn't impair my driving to text behind the wheel" morons. I have to SLOW DOWN to pass a cyclist?! Most of the time I don't even see them 'til I've already passed!

Believe it or not, I had a pretty good commute this morning.

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