Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Road Rage Rules

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.


Anonymous said...

I love all of Bil's Driving Commandments (although maybe they ought to be rewritten in a "Thou Shalt Not.." style if they are to be taken seriously as commandments).

However, I think that seven commandments are more than lots of drivers will be able to keep in mind as they thoughtlessly cruise the roads. On top of that, I can think of a couple more, like 'If you can't see any pavement between you and the car ahead of you then you are WAY too close'.

Your thoughts about cars at a variety of speeds is right on. I saw some research about this when there was discussion in the state legislature about raising speed limits. The research clearly showed that a wide range of speeds was far more hazardous than high speed alone. A highway with a speed limit of 55 with speeds ranging from 55 to 70 had more accidents (with greater damage) than a highway with a speed limit of 65 with a range of speeds between 65 and 75.

This leads to a ninth commandment: "If you are not comfortable keeping up with the traffic on the highway find a different route."

Still, I am afraid that we will be fighting a losing battle just to get folks to follow Bil's 7th Commandment - 'Make driving your priority'. If we could at least get that one widely followed we still may not have smooth-flowing highways, but we may not have to worry so much about the giant guided missles that are zooming around the highways now, trying to do us in.

- Jeffy

wunelle said...

I agree that getting people to follow commandments at all is probably an impossible mission. But I like the additions!

I'm shocked that traffic is as bad--from a bad-driving POV--in Appleton as it was in the TC. I assumed that congestion was the root of all evil; but somehow it's not as maddening as BAD driving. Ah, well. I could always propose our "commandment" idea to the state legislature!

Dzesika said...

LOVE LOVE LOVE the photo. :)

Mandy said...

Okay, I'm still laughing at "hydrocephalic obliviate". I heartily agree with your rules, and have been known to loudly voice some of them to my fellow drivers who are in flagrant violation of them from time to time. It's not my best quality. I must confess to sometimes cruising in the left lane, but that's ONLY if I'm going faster than the people driving in the right lane. I think of it as "extended passing".

Do you know what just *kills* me, though? People who have had TVs installed in their cars so that the DRIVER can watch them. Um, Dude - if the road isn't interesting enough on its own, then you SHOULDN'T BE DRIVING THE DAMN CAR. How is that legal??


Esbee said...

Hear! Hear!

Where do I sign?

mysterygirl! said...

I agree with all of these tips. I vote radio campaign, since I'd probably crash trying to read them on a billboard. (Which somehow reminds me of when I was researching cell phones, and one of the reviews said "flat buttons make it too hard to text message while driving." What?! Um, how about not doing that anymore, then?)

Oh, and "the sugar in the gas tank of effective freeway functioning" is lovely.

CrustyCaptain said...

I am still laughing! I totally agree! Number 4 reminded me of recently witnessing one of those idiots who passes trucks on the right. Which, if I am not mistaken, is an illegal maneuver.
There are those who simply do not give the opportunity to those truckers who occasionally stray into the left lane time to get back into the right lane. Especially for those truckers who only move over to the left to allow traffic to merge onto the highway from the on-ramps.
Then there is the event I witnessed in which a trucker thought that he just might be able to pass the slower (1 mph slower) truck in front of him. This alone is annoying enough as it is, then enters the idiot on the scene. The trucker figures out that he won't be able to pass and would have gotten back over into the right lane (turn indicator on) except that some schmuck who just couldn't wait has pulled up next the truck, boxing the truck in the left lane. Thankfully the trucker saw this person in time and did not crush him. And there we all find ourselves stuck with no place to go and that same schmuck is now tailgating the slow truck in the right lane because he has places to go and people to see (like the rest of us don't). We eventually started down hill and the truck in the left lane finally had enough steam to pass the slower truck and we were finally free. That same schmuck then proceeded to cut in front of someone barely missing the bumper and was able to speed away.
Passing on the right really should only be done if the person floating along in the left has failed to adhere to rule number 3 and there are no other people around that might interfere with your plans.
I wholly agree with number 7. It simply summs up all of the other rules. I think that if more people simply made 'driving a priority' we would all be safer and happier drivers!

Anonymous said...

The speed limit isn't a suggestion for those who wish to rule the road. It is a limit, a law, and the best way to change laws isn't to ignore or thumb your nose at them, but to petition the government for change as is your constitutional right.

I may not like someone plugging up the left lane at 60 in a sixty zone, but what am I supposed to do? Call a cop?

"911 what's your emergency?"
"There's someone driving sixty in the left lane. NOBODY can pass."
"Uhhh... Okay... What's the speed limit, sir?"
"Have a nice day, sir."

I hope you don't use your vigilante mentality when you're out shopping and the prices seem too high.


wunelle said...

Hahaha! That's what I get out of this post, too! My "vigilante mentality!"

Yeah, you're reading me like a book.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, that was probably a little strongly worded. Your "#6" seems to be out of place on your list. Generally you seem to be on the mark.

You write:

"6. Your speed relative to other traffic is more important than your speed relative to a posted speed limit."

I assume you mean faster than the posted speed limit. Is this legal? Have you ever noticed traffic slowing down behind a highway patrol car on the freeway? I've noticed that all lanes of traffic slow down to the speed limit. Why is that? Have you asked the highway patrol officer if you may pass him in a "convoy" of cars?

You continue:

"[T]ickets, 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."

Again, would you be willing to present a highway patrol officer with your "working definition?"
Hmmm... and you continue with this justification:

"(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.)"

For what it's worth, friend, you're advocating breaking the law.

Colorado has laws in place that limit one's right to use the left lane except for passing. This law is meant to keep slower cars from blocking the flow of traffic, which is assumedly a safety hazard as you mentioned. See

If you don't like the current law in your state, then petition to have it changed. I apologize for calling you a vigilante. It's just that your typical high standards seem to be watered down by your apparent need to incite others.


wunelle said...

OK. I had not intended further comment, as my post stands fine in my mind. But my friend reminds me that dialog is not a bad thing. So I'll clear this off my scratchpad.

Fred--your comments address something else entirely from the thrust of my post. You are interested in legality and obedience to the law, and I am talking about what I think would make the freeways function better. Yes, they overlap, but addressing your concerns would be quite a different post. But I will concede: to the extent moving with traffic involves exceeding a posted speed limit then yes, I'm advocating joing the group in breaking the law.

For my purposes, I stand by my post. If traffic is moving at 75 mph, a car driving 55 mph in the left lane is a hazard regardless of what the aluminum sign says. You may not approve of the 75 mph in the first place, but I argue as someone who spends a lot of time on the road: this is what one typically finds in traffic. Mr. 55 may be legal, but I'd argue he is not safe, he is cloyingly unsavvy, and he certainly is not contributing to effective freeway operation. In this case the law, which presumably has been enacted in the interest of public safety, is an ineffectual stab in the dark. How to change the law is, again, another post and not my concern here. Again, I think studies have shown that freeways find their speeds without reference to posted limits generally. We should be trying to achieve safety some other way. If that rankles the sensibilities of one who values obedience to the law above all other things, so be it.

As for people slowing up around a cop, this makes my point for me. I get very irritated at the cop who sees traffic piling up behind him while he plods along at a speed no one would be driving without him there. This is law as an exercise in stupid ass-kick enforcement. And practice shows that even cops do not regularly observe speed limits strictly. Again, I believe tickets should be written for unsafe driving, not failure to observe the letter of a speed limit law (which infraction is seen almost universally as comparatively trivial, judging by the relatively small fines levied and the ability to settle the matter in the mail), and we should be more sophisticated than to judge safety by an arbitrary number.

How we behave around patrol cars or what we would argue to an officer about to ticket us for speeding has nothing to do with my post. These things reflect our desire to avoid punishment, which is a totally separate argument from the justice of the rule they're punishing us for breaking.

Lastly, to my mind the person who pedantically stands on the letter of a law while blocking traffic desiring to go faster is a much better example of vigilanteism than anything in my post.