Tuesday, December 26, 2006


After driving home on Christmas night, I have come to the conclusion that courtesy cannot be legislated. It seems that the diversity of the population in California has so many differing concepts of what are good manners, or if in fact, manners are even to be given a place in everyday behavior, that driving on the freeways has become an ordeal governed by Darwinian laws rather than vehicular codes.

I have always thought of the turn signal as an expression of courtesy. Signaling one's intention to change lanes at potentially lethal speeds seems to be a nice thing to do. If you are nearing your exit, it makes good sense to let drivers around you know that you intend to move over. It is also the law that you do so. But for some unknown(to me) reason, a turn signal has become a red rag waved in the face of a bull. Everytime I use my turn signal, the driver in the lane I wish to enter is stimulated by the blinking light to speed up and so impede my entry to "his" lane. As a result, I have found that the only way to make a safe lane change is to ignore the law and go while the gettin's good, so to speak.

Doesn't it seem silly that a driver, moving along the highway at sixty-plus miles per hour, would have such ownership anxiety over a chunk of asphalt that he would risk the safety of his passengers as well as those in the cars around him by speeding up to prevent another driver from safely going where he wants to go?Why is that? What gives drivers that level of nerve?

I think that it is because driving is an anonymous activity. We don't know who is in the car next to us and we will probably never meet face to face, so it seems safe to tell a BMW to "fuck off!" or an SUV to "eat shit, motherfucker!" Maybe there is a sense of power associated with hemming in a more expensive car. We feel safe in our cars. When we are behind the wheel, we can say anything to anybody without being held accountable. We can hurl the pent up hatred felt for our boss or our mother-in-law indiscriminately at strangers...strangers who are trying to change lanes.

I wonder what would happen if we behaved with the same vehemence when we weren't in the safety of our armored cars. How many times have you accidentally bumped someone's shopping cart and profusely apologized? You wouldn't think of screaming "Get out of the fucking way, asshole!" at the top of your lungs. If someone is weighing carrots, we don't give them the death glare and lay on the horn. If someone were to drop their ATM card, we pick it up and say, "excuse me, did you drop this?" Or when an elevator stops and opens its doors, do we intentionally stand in the doorway until they close again, preventing fellow passengers from getting off on their floor? Of course we don't.

So what is the difference? Why do we find it so easy to be nice when we can see the other person's eyes? I don't think that the threat of retribution is a factor. I wouldn't expect a grandmother to bounce a can of creamed corn off of my head if I rammed her shopping cart. And I don't think that anyone would kick me in the balls for cutting in line at the bank. It's just nice to be nice, isn't it? But just let us get behind the wheel and we become the commander of a Panzer division, hell-bent on the destruction of all that crosses our path. The frightening thing is that we achieve our most destructive state of mind when we are most heavily armed. A car is, after all, a most effective weapon at highway speed.

Laws attempt to make us behave. But we do as we like according to how much we think we can get away with. We speed until we get caught. We roll through stop sign unless we see a police car. And we always look for a black-and-white before we throw a soda can out the car window.I look forward to a time when driving under the influence of being an asshole becomes an infraction on the same scale as littering, which carries a hefty fine.

So let's be nice, just to be nice. When someone signals a lane change, don't get possessive about cement that doesn't belong to you. Say "after you" and realize that the split second added to your drive home made life a little easier for a fellow human. Let's start the new year by having some manners.

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