John M. Lane
Can one act speak as a microcosm for the state of society? Most people would probably say no. What if this one act carried within it a person’s psyche, how that person views the world, society’s laws, norms, and customs, and their place in it. What if I told you that one act was driving a vehicle? Come on! Do not be ridiculous! Driving a vehicle is driving a vehicle! Every time a person gets behind the steering wheel, however, they are about to enter the most dangerous place in the United States: a public road, street, or highway.
The light turns “green.” The vehicles in the two northbound begin their acceleration. You are in the right lane in a 35-mph speed zone as vehicles speed past you.” 40”, “45”, “50” as you approach the hill. You are going “40,” and that is not fast enough. The vehicle behind you is so close that you can see the coffee brand the driver is drinking. Suddenly, they “whip” around you (giving you an obscene gesture), almost hitting the rear of the vehicle in that lane. The other seven vehicles in your “pack” have beaten you – to the next light. At that point, the process begins again. Who will be “victorious” in the race to the next intersection? There is a line in a somewhat famous film from the beginning of this century that sums up this situation: “Look at us, look at what they make us give.” (The Bourne Identity) That line speaks volumes about everyday life on America’s roads.
There are now more vehicles on the road than the US road network was meant to accommodate. This situation should logically lead drivers to pay more attention to safe driving norms and laws. However, the exact opposite has happened. Speeding is epidemic, aggression is the norm; stopping at stop signs, and red lights are at best a nuisance, or worse, optional. What used to be a matter of self-policing and civic courtesy is now beyond law enforcement’s ability to effectively police without support from the driving public.
Law enforcement is spread thin and, combined with the lack of citizen self-policing, has allowed “open season” for the most oversized, fastest vehicles and the most aggressive drivers. In a residential neighborhood, slowing down, or even stopping at a stop sign has become a nuisance, an affront to personal liberty. How dare anyone attempt to take away my right to get to where I want to go as fast as possible? You get in the way of aggressive and privileged drivers; you are risking your life. Human beings’ innate behavior is on full display when they get behind a vehicle’s steering wheel. Seemingly anonymous (although in clear view), the façade of civilized behavior disappears, replaced by pure selfishness, greed, and aggression. The appalling number of deaths and injuries on our roads and highways is accepted as the cost to maintain “liberty” and “freedom.”
Politically and practically, it would be impossible to advocate for less powerful vehicles or regionally based 21st-century public transportation systems that would connect the nation. Every time a highway is remodeled or expanded, it is immediately obsolete. We will not be able to “pave” our way out of this situation. Hopefully, sometime by mid-century, we will finally be ready to make substantial changes in how we transport ourselves. Until then, our only hope is to realize that there are real people in the vehicles next to us, on bicycles, walking, and trying to get on with their lives. In the race to nowhere, please slow down; we can all arrive safely.
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