Monday, December 12, 2005

Observations About Sunday Drivers

There are few sights more ironic, to me at least, than that of a totaled out wreck of a car with a “God Is My Copilot” vanity plate on the front and a little Christian Fish on the trunk. It speaks to me of that special blend of ignorance and arrogance that seems to pervade a certain segment of the driving community in this country, and especially the South. Being a natural born hillbilly, I grew up with a certain respect for the speed limits around my rural home. After all, when rocks the size of pumpkins can fall off the mountainside at any moment, you tend to want some assurance that you can keep from hitting it, if you’re lucky enough to not get hit in the first place. Not to mention the fact that if you take a curve too fast in southern WV, you might end up over the mountainside. Literally.

That’s why it was such a shock to move to NC and try to deal with day-to-day driving here. I’ve driven the New Jersey Turnpike at rush hour, and I honestly think I’d rather do that every day for a week than drive through Charlotte unnecessarily. At least on the NJT, the other drivers are aware of the fact that you might want to be in the same space they want to be in. Short tempers abound, birds and other gestures fly frequently, horns are honked incessantly, but at the end of the day, the other guy (or gal) notices you and acknowledges your existence. Hell, the coal truck drivers of my own mountain home usually had the good graces to look abashed and embarrassed if they did something snarky, accidentally or intentionally.

But not here in good ol’ North Cackalacky. I have seen more blind stupidity, more willful ignorance of others, more arrogant assumption of rights here in NC in a year than I did my entire juvenile and college-age life anywhere else. And it doesn’t get better as the years go by. It gets worse. I’ve been here for almost a decade, and every year brings fresh outrages and astonishments. The speeding and casual disregard for your fellow man on the road is bad enough, but what’s worse is that it’s not just the people behind the wheel. Pedestrians are so self-assured of their right to be wherever the hell they feel like being that it’s sometimes amazing to me that children survive to be adults in this area.

Take, for example, the plethora of (mostly) women that I noticed in my first transplant year, who would step out into the middle of traffic, assuming you were going to stop for them. Now, I’ll admit, most of them had on such silly and ostentatious hats that it was actually pretty easy to track their progress from sidewalk through parked cars onto Main Street, so I was usually able to stop without smacking into anyone. But the first one almost died because I never dreamed in my entire life that a fully adult woman would step out into the middle of traffic without even looking! And the look she gave me as I screeched to a halt (from a whopping 20 mph, mind you) would have melted the steel of my undercarriage, if there had been any steel in my riceburner.

Of course, it hasn’t gotten any better. In the first three years I lived in this small NC town, I heard of no less than five pedestrians getting hit because of stepping out into traffic. Sadly, the pedestrians are nothing compared to the drivers. Recently, a four-way stop was added to an intersection near my home. I watched, time and again, as people blew through those stop-signs like they weren’t even there, usually at high speed. People just drive on automatic, too wrapped up in their cell phones/iPods/burgers/drinks/dvd players/next stop/fill-in-the-blank to actually pay attention to the road. This intersection was not new, just the signage and a fourth, small access road that NCDOT had been working on for months. When it opened, they made the intersection a four-way instead of a throughway with one stop-sign. But did people stop at the four-way? No. Every single time I came up on that intersection for a month, I watched somebody blow through it like it didn’t exist. People were so used to driving through there without stopping, so used to driving on automatic, day or night, that they didn’t even notice the difference, even though it was clearly marked and had extra signage on the lead-up to it from either end of the “main” road. The change just didn’t register with a certain segment of the people driving through there.

Now, I'm not saying that it wouldn't have happened back in WV. Of course it would have. For about a day. Maybe a week. Most people would notice the giant orange diamond-shaped warning signs and taken note, back home. But not around here. This is the land of "I was going the speed limit. I was only five miles over the posted, after all." This is the kind of thing I’m talking about when I speak of that special blend of ignorance and arrogance pervading part of the driving community. These are the same people that don’t even see you when they cut you off. Your car is just an obstacle, if that, to be avoided but not acknowledged. These are the people that are out for Number One, themselves. Their business is important. Their time is valuable. Theirs is the right of way, in all circumstances. Always and forever.

I’ve always said that you can tell when you live in the Bible Belt when the traffic on Sunday morning is heavier than the traffic on Saturday night, and I came to that conclusion right here in this small town in NC. It’s a safe assumption that the bulk of Sunday morning traffic is church traffic, and I never feel more harried, harassed and, above all, ignored, than when I’m driving home from a long Saturday nightshift, having to dodge church traffic all the way home. And more than once, on those aggravating Sunday morning drives, I’ve seen wrecks with “God Is My Copilot” on the front and a Christian Fish on the trunk. Apparently, charity and well-wishing for your fellow man only occurs outside the car. What goes on behind the wheel stays behind the wheel.

So, I think I'll let my conscience be my copilot. I have to live with it.

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"Loyalty to petrified opinion never broke a chain or freed a human soul..." -- Mark Twain

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Fire does not wait for the sun to be hot,

Nor the wind for the moon, to be cool.

-- the Zenrin Kushu