Red-Light Runners

I’m convinced the quality of driving, and drivers, in America is going steadily downhill, and our roads are becoming more dangerous.  The best evidence of that reality is found at any intersection in any American city with a traffic light.

factsheet-rlr-240x255If you take a moment to watch the traffic light at an intersection go through its signal progression and observe the actions of drivers in response — as I do every day on my walks to and from the office — you’ll immediately notice three things.  First, almost nobody stops when the light turns yellow.  Instead, the amber caution light now is viewed as an invitation to speed up, so that three or four or five more speeding cars can go careening through the intersection.  Second, at least one car, and sometimes two, will rip through the intersection on the red light, apparently banking on the hope that the cars on the crossing street, and any pedestrians trying to cross the street, won’t have moved into the intersection by then.  And third, cars turning right at the intersection don’t actually stop at the red light.  Instead, they’ll roll right into the crosswalk and move immediately into their turns, not stopping unless there’s a car approaching from the left.  It’s not the traffic signal, but instead the oncoming traffic, that affects their behavior.

This is a significant change from when I started driving, and you were trained to stop when the yellow light appeared.  If you took somebody fresh from a ’70s-era drivers’ education course and put them on a modern city street, they’d probably get rear-ended and cause a multi-car pileup because the drivers behind would be expecting them to speed up on yellow, just like everybody else seems to do.  And, of course, running a red light was a sure way to get a ticket in those days.   But now no police officers seem to be writing tickets for red-light runners, and efforts by cities to enforce the red-light rules through intersection camera set-ups has been mired in corruption claims and technological issues.  So people feel free to run the red lights, and probably will continue to do so until they get into an accident, hit a pedestrian or a cyclist, or get a ticket.

I wish city police departments would devote more resources to in-city enforcement of traffic laws so that as many officers are looking for urban red-light runners as are looking for speeders on the nation’s highways.  And who knows?  Maybe when the technological glitches get ironed out, self-driving cars will actually make the streets safer.  But right now, it’s dangerous out there, and it seems to be getting worse.

The Season Of Hand-Out-The-Window Drivers

The weather’s not bad right now, as we wait expectantly for the next Midwestern exposure to the dreaded Polar Vortex.  That means it’s the season of the hand-out-the-window drivers — that small fraction of motorists who like tooling down the road with their forearms and hands flapping in the breeze.

IMG_2905Of course, the HOTW drivers flout standard driving conventions.  Obviously, they aren’t keeping both hands on the steering wheel at 10 and 2 o’clock, as we were taught to do by our hectoring drivers’ ed instructors. And there has been no need for a driver’s hand to be out of the car since the hand-signaling Model T era, before automakers made the turn signal standard equipment.  In fact, air conditioning means there’s no need for the window to be open at all.

Yet still the HOTW drivers persist.  Some use the elbow on the door frame, hand clutching the edge of the roof approach, others extend the arm outward and hold the side-view mirror, and still others just let their hands wander free in the air stream, like a happy, tongue-lolling dog with its head outside the car.  But, why?  Why expose the arm to the outer elements?  Why have the forearm skin battered by the random insects that meet their fates mashed against a car windshield?  Why not experience the pristine wonder of the completely enclosed, carefully climate-controlled, fully interior driving experience?

I’m guessing the HOTWers have a bit of rebel in them.

Needing To Purge Over The Urge To Merge

I took my driver’s ed class with Mr. Pfeil.  He was a phys ed teacher, and for him driving consisted of certain clear, immutable rules of conduct.

IMG_2152The problem is that most people don’t know what to do when they have the urge to merge.  Mr. Pfeil would tell you that merging is easy:  you look over your left shoulder, gauge traffic flow, select an opening, and accelerate smoothly into that opening.  Of course, almost no one does that anymore.  These days, it’s far more likely that you’ll run into one of these irksome merging techniques:

The sidler — The sidler relies entirely on pity.  Rather than picking a spot and taking decisive action, he will sidle alongside the traffic flow, hoping that some good Samaritan will wave him in.  If no good Samaritan appears, he jams on the brakes at the end of the on ramp and makes an wild, thrashing arm-in-the-air gesture.  Good luck with that “smooth acceleration” approach if you are behind the sidler!

The magic elf — This driver typically can barely see over the steering wheel, is about 97 years old, and is driving a car built in the 1950s.  He apparently is convinced that his turn signal has some mystical power, and so long as the turn signal is on an opening in traffic will magically appear to accept his vehicle.  This guy inevitably shows up when you are in the traffic flow, drifting casually into  your lane with his turn signal blinking.

The ball buster — The ball buster drives an oversized pickup truck and probably just left his appointment at a low testosterone treatment clinic.  He barrels down the on ramp at top speed, jams into the traffic flow at his whim, and makes rude gestures while he is doing so.  He figures his truck is going to come out on top in any collision, so what the heck?

I wish more of my fellow drivers had taken Mr. Pfeil’s class.