On my way home yesterday, it occurred to me the enormous amount of trust we put in complete strangers every time we get into our cars. Numerous traffic laws are more like social contracts to behave a certain way. If everyone accepts the same basic method of driving, then the whole system runs smoothly. Just one person who decides to drive the wrong way on a road or ignore a streetlight can cause complete chaos.
There is also the amazing iconography and graphic design that we encounter on a constant basis. A yellow dashed-stripe means one thing, a white one means something else. All road signs which require a particular action or level of attention are the same color. It really is a pretty amazing system.
But, I digress.
What got me thinking about driving in the terms of trust was the action of one particular driver yesterday. He was a man in his late-40s, driving a nice but older red BMW. Let's call him Bert.
I'm on a large street headed East. There are three lanes for me (I'm in the far left), three headed the other way, and a wide left-turn lane between us. We had been waiting for a traffic light that was quite a ways ahead of us. It had just turned green, and as the compression wave of traffic expanded like the Slinky it is, we were just starting to move. Here comes Bert.
Bert is coming the opposite direction, and he needs to turn left. He glides into the left-turn lane and begins his turn. Right into the existing traffic! There wasn't a space there he was trying to beat; the traffic wasn't stopped so he could create a gap; he just turned. The car ahead of me (let's call him Ernie) had to slam on his breaks to keep from hitting Bert head-on. Bert stopped too-- in the middle of our lane!
By this time, the wave is in full motion. The other two lanes are about up to speed, all of them trying to make that light up ahead. Oblivious Bert just waits there, blocking a full lane, until enough cars see the situation and stop long enough to let him through. Of course, neither Ernie nor I (Can I be Grover?) nor anyone behind us make the light that was only about 20 yards away.
Now, you may be thinking, "So what? That sounds just like a typical asshole driver to me." You're right. But what was Bert's mindset when he made that bonehead move? He *knew* that there was nowhere for him to go, but he went anyway. He probably thought that Ernie wouldn't want to wreck his car, prolong his commute, and ruin his day by running into Bert. You could say he forced Ernie to stop, but to me, it was an act of faith. He believed that he knew what would happen.
After realizing his error, Bert also could have backed up the three feet necessary to accommodate our lane. He could have waited in the left-turn lane for the traffic to pass or even stop, and then make his turn. But again, Bert had faith. He knew that if he stayed his course, eventually others would accommodate him. And he was right! That's pretty amazing, actually.
So, back to what I was saying at the beginning. If *everyone* drove this way, it would be anarchy. Have you ever visited a country where they don't have (or obey) lanes on a road? It isn't pretty. But if just one person out of hundreds does it, the ripple is quickly absorbed by the stream.
You could take from this example that there's always going to be an arrogant jerk on the road with no consideration for other drivers. Or, it could be that all of us are actually quite considerate, and from time to time we are asked to prove it.
As someone who is ashamed of my own occasional bouts of road rage, I think I'll choose the latter.
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