I spent Monday on the road, as I often do, getting to KY to work. There are so many good things about a day's drive, so many things I love. I love simply to be going, regardless of the destination; I love passing thru the cities which I hit, like clockwork, every two hours of my drive--Milwaukee, Chicago, Indianapolis, Louisville (I drive with the windows & sunroof open when I can, and I think maybe I could identify Chicago, especially, by smell alone. There is a certain not-found-in-nature smell about large cities that, while not necessarily pleasant in itself, is powerfully evocative of so many distinctive city-things: bus traffic and street food and crowded sidewalks and a zillion restaurants and sewer gas and busy freeways); hours spent sampling local radio stations; long phone conversations with family & friends; and even with a car like my old Riviera, which is emphatically NOT a driver's car, I love the time spent operating the machine itself. For a machinery geek, this represents quality time, like throwing the baseball with your kid. If anything is working below par--any strange noises or vibrations--or working particularly well, here is where you make the acquaintance and assessment. This is one way you can come to know your car intimately. Everything seems warmed up and well-lubricated and happy after a couple hours on the road; I'm convinced that these long road trips have healing powers for a car (and, conversely, a life of short trips is hard on a car and ages it quickly).
But (there's always a but) it's not an unalloyed lovefest. In an eight hour trip, I inevitably spend some portion of it wanting to throttle the life out of some hydrocephalic obliviate who insists on being the sugar in the gas tank of effective freeway functioning. Lest I get too high and mighty, I'm well to remind myself that I've had a few accidents over the years, a couple of them my own fault. True, I've driven considerably more than most people my age, but I can't hide behind that; if I were as good a driver as I'd like to be, I'd have had none. And, without fail, no sooner do I feel the urge to yell at some idiot's driving than I find myself inadvertently committing a similar sin (like, maybe, for example, telling a friend, incredulously, over my cell phone about some numbnuts blocking the left lane while gabbing away on his cell phone) (I should add that I do not use my cell phone in the car without a hands-free kit, but still...). So, long and short, I make my share of stupid moves in the car, and it is useful to remember that none of us is perfect in our execution of this task.
But that's not to say that I cannot make a useful commentary about any of it, and I'm very sure that certain egregious foibles are not in my vocabulary. After Monday's drive, I thought maybe I should agitate for states to run a billboard & radio / TV ad campaign giving the great unwashed driving masses a ten-easy-commandments lesson on good road etiquette. A few short rules which, if internalized, would make driving safer and more efficient (and less road-rage-inducing) for everyone. Some of these ideas are common knowledge among professional drivers, and to the general population in parts of Europe; and in some cases they are even codified into law. I've read a bit about driving on the Autobahn (though I've never driven on one), and things would be dire there without universal discipline about rules like these. (As an aside, I remember reading a magazine article that said one of the reasons that the German carmakers had such trouble putting the number of cupholders in their cars that Americans seem to demand stems from their Autobahn-driven car culture: driving safely at 120 mph--and above--precludes every activity not directly involved in driving the car--no drinking, no drive-thru food, no makeup application, no cell phone conversations, etc. They take operating an automobile very seriously. Even if that kind of driving represents only a portion of what German drivers do, it still informs all of their driving education and car culture. An interesting point.)
So after some consideration, here is a short list, or the beginnings of a list, of things I think would, if internalized by the driving public, make our roads operate much better:
1. Do not drive in the leftmost lane, except to pass, unless it is too busy not to. (A friend of mine disputes this idea, and I can agree that there is nothing inherently sacrosanct about the left lane; but we must operate from a consistent set of rules for this to work, and I think professional drivers have designated the left lane for this purpose. This seems as good a random selection as any other, with the added benefit of being generally accepted already.) This requires constant vigilance and time to take hold as an established habit. 20 times a day in Wisconsin I see people come onto a busy highway and cut directly across to the left lane and sit there at a pace chosen without reference to anything but personal whimsy. I want to bitch-slap these people.
2. Do not match the speed of any car next to you. If you're going to drive the same speed, get in front of or behind them and occupy their lane with them. A thousand times I've seen the unthinking driver pacing themselves with the car next to them, like the poor person's cruise control. That's great if the car is in front of you. But side-by-side, it stops up the freeway like a diet of peanuts & cheese. I've sat before for over an hour in a miles-long line of cars because somebody was in the left lane unconsciously matching someone going 55 mph in the right. I was a little surprised that someone didn't run the offender off the road when they eventually got round. This could also be remedied by #3:
3. Look frequently in your mirrors--be aware of what traffic is doing around you! If there is a car fairly close behind you, you may be holding them up (particularly if there is no way for them to get around you--see #s 1&2 above). Make it a personal goal to do what you can to help traffic move quickly and safely.
4. If you get passed on the right you are probably doing something wrong. Someone passing you on your right side should send up an electric flag of warning (I believe this is a ticketable offense in Germany).
5. Don't make others' punishment & conversion a personal, behind-the-wheel goal. The guy riding your bumper, however bad a practice that is, simply wants to get around and go faster than we are going. It takes far less effort and energy to just help him get on with it. Nothing we can do at the wheel will make someone else not be an asshole. It is good to remember that we have our hands full being helpful and competent. Certainly I do. And courtesy does have a certain contagion about it.
6. Your speed relative to other traffic is more important than your speed relative to a posted speed limit. I've read that speed limits have little effect on what speed traffic actually flows; tickets, in my opinion, should be given out for driving faster than the prevailing flow of traffic beyond a certain margin. This seems one good working definition of driving safely. (Also, for what it's worth, you're much less likely to be ticketed for speeding when you drive in a group of cars traveling the same speed.)
7. Lastly, I'd say Make driving a priority, an important activity. Thoughtlessly chatting on the phone, putting on makeup, reading CD liner notes (my friend hit a deer once while reading a book late at night as he drove home), eating a three-course meal; these things all make us worse, and less responsible, drivers. I do a number of these things myself, but I've learned to save some of these activities for a time and circumstance when I'm not endangering anyone by them. In the end we would all benefit from everyone taking the task of driving the car a bit more seriously.
Here endeth the sermon.