The Mystery Of The Middle Lane

When you are on an interstate highway with two lanes, everyone knows what to do: the right lane is for people moving at a slower speed, the left lane is for passing. But when you add a third lane, people apparently get flustered. You would think that adding another lane would make freeway traffic flow more smoothly. Regrettably, that is often not the case.

The problem is that many people don’t know how to behave in the middle lane. It’s like it is a perplexing mystery to them. The inexorable logic of road design and the teaching of Drivers’ Ed courses would lead to the conclusion that the right lane remains for slower-moving vehicles, the lane to the left of the right lane–i.e., the middle land–is for passing those slower vehicles, and the far left lane is for passing the middle-lane vehicles. A key part of this analysis is that middle-lane cars on a three-lane road should behave like left-lane cars on a two-lane road, and move over to the right lane after the passing is completed to allow the faster moving cars to freely pass using the two leftward lanes.

Too often, however, this does not happen. Instead, cars tend to camp out in the middle lanes, so much so that they may as well pitch a tent there. How many times have you been on a three-lane highway and seen someone dawdling in the middle lane, clogging up the traffic while frustrated drivers pass them on the left and, dangerously, on the right? It’s as if they feel like the middle lane is their personal traffic lane, to use as they see fit. Why is this so? Is it simply the peculiarly modern problem of self-absorption that has so afflicted our society, or is it that the slow middle-lane drivers like having a buffer lane to the left and to the right and don’t care who they inconvenience or delay to achieve that? And how can they not see the cars lining up behind them, wondering why in the world they don’t move over?

The Mystery Of The Middle Lane sounds like a Hardy Boys story, but instead it is one of those imponderables of American culture. It’s almost to the point where you groan when you see a two-lane highway widen to three lanes, because you know those annoying middle-lane road hogs are going to make an appearance and gum up the works.

The Road Home

Yesterday I got up early and drove from Savannah, Georgia to Columbus, Ohio. It’s an interesting ride that took me on I-95, then I-26, then a long stretch on I-77–one of the major north-south arteries in the eastern part of the country, running from the outskirts of Columbia, South Carolina, through North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and Ohio to Lake Erie–before finally rolling through southeastern Ohio on Route 33.

My journey began in the coastal low country, where the roads were flat as a pancake. The roads were so flat for so long, in fact, that it was mildly startling to encounter my first hill in inland South Carolina. But the countryside quickly becomes hilly, and then mountainous, as you intersect with I-77 and head north through the Blue Ridge Mountains and and later the Appalachian Mountains. Before you know it you are dealing with numerous switchbacks and driving through the long tunnel at Big Walker Mountain.

I-77 is apparently notorious for truckers; it is ranked as one of the most dangerous roads in the country for drivers of the big rigs, primarily because of its unpredictable weather. The weather is so unpredictable that I-77 has its own weather tracker website, which provides information like that shown in the screenshot above. I got a taste of the squirrelly weather yesterday, when I hit a significant amount of thick fog in one of the mountain passes. The drive also features lots of steep inclines and declines and significant curves as you maneuver through the mountains. It’s impressive work by the traffic engineers and road builders, but surely no treat for tractor-trailers.

As I drove, I once again appreciated the investment in our national road system, which allowed me to make a reasonably straight-line drive back home and complete the trip in a single morning and afternoon. The only sour taste came when I hit two “pay to drive” stretches–a paid “express lane” option in North Carolina, and three toll booths, requiring payments of $4.25 each, in southern West Virginia. The express lane option would have really irked me if the traffic was heavy, but fortunately it wasn’t. The toll payments in West Virginia made me wonder why tolls were required there when the rest of I-77 was, literally, a freeway. The road went through rugged country at that stretch, and at least it seemed that my toll payments were keeping the road in good repair. In the grand scheme of things, paying $12.75 and buying a few tanks of gas to complete a 670-mile journey is a bargain.

The Driving Option

Like many people, I’ve had some evil luck traveling by air over the past year or so, and have had to deal with delays and outright cancellations of flights that have left me stranded. In view of those unhappy experiences, I’ve vowed to use the driving option as an alternative method of transportation when I think it makes sense to do so. Yesterday I put the driving option to the test by driving from Columbus to Atlanta for a meeting.

The stated flight time for travel from Columbus to Atlanta is one hour and 40 minutes. Build in the time needed to get to the airport and get through security to your gate with time to spare and the time needed to get out of Atlanta’s airport, which is one of the nation’s largest and busiest, and you’re probably looking at about five hours, all in. In contrast, the drive time is about eight and a half hours, door to door. That’s at the outer limits of what I would consider to be a reasonable driving alternative zone–that is, anything within an eight-hour drive should be considered for a visit by car rather than by plane.

If you’re interested solely in speed, the airline flight is the obvious choice. Of course, there are other advantages to driving (or disadvantages, depending on your perspective). With driving, you are an active participant in the process, rather than a passive passenger. With driving, you control when you leave and arrive, rather than being subject to flight schedules. With driving, you take the weather, technological, and scheduling snafus that have affected airline flights over the last year out of the equation–although of course you might hit a traffic jam. And there’s always the chance that, GPS system notwithstanding, you might get lost.

The drive from Columbus to Atlanta is a pretty straight shot: you head down I-71 to Cincinnati, join up with I-75, cross the Ohio River, and then follow I-75 through Kentucky, eastern Tennessee, and northern Georgia all the way to Atlanta. I left a bit before 7 and got in a bit after 3 p.m., and in the process I got a taste of the country that I would never have experienced from above 10,000 feet.

I knew I had left the Midwest behind when I rolled past Florence, Kentucky, where the water tower says “Florence Y’all.” That perception was confirmed when I got a chicken sandwich for lunch from a Bojangle’s (a chain we don’t have in Cbus) somewhere in Tennessee and the woman staffing the drive-thru kept calling me “darlin'”. The drive takes you past cities (Cincinnati, Lexington, Knoxville, and Chattanooga) with a lot of countryside, and Civil War battle sites, in between. My Ohio sensibilities were touched when I saw that “Cleveland” and “Dayton” are also places in Tennessee. I listened to music and reflected on the fact that I am fortunate to live in a big, diverse country with an interesting history.

I like driving, and for me the journey from Columbus to Atlanta showed that the driving option is a viable one. I’d do it again.

The Change in Teenage Attitudes About Driving

Statistics show that American teenagers are less likely to get their learner’s permit and their driver’s license than they once were. In fact, they are a lot less likely to take what used to be viewed as a first step toward adulthood.

The Washington Post reports that in 1983, 46 percent of 16-year-olds had licenses; today, it’s 25 percent. In 1983, 80 percent of 18-year-olds had a license; today, it’s 60 percent. This phenomenon will seem surprising to those of us who grew up in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, when getting your driver’s license was a crucially important rite of passage. We all were eager to get behind the wheel of a car with a brightly colored, 100 percent plastic interior, like the one shown above, and head out on the open road. The only people I knew who didn’t have their licenses at the earliest possible moment were those who had choked on the parallel parking part of the in-car test.

That’s no longer true, and the big question is why this significant change in teenage attitude has happened. The Post article approaches the story anecdotally, through the tale of several families and their kids, and identifies a series of potential reasons. They include things like digital connectivity, which allows kids to hang out on-line without being physically present, the allure of video games and the gamer community, and the ready availability of Uber and Lyft if you need a ride. One kid confessed that he thought driving was boring, and he’d rather just ride and be able to look at his phone. Some parents also may not be pushing their kids to get their driving privileges like they once did.

Other, darker factors may be at work, too: the perception that driving has become very dangerous, thanks to reports of road rage incidents, the fact that many kids are dealing with depression and anxiety for other reasons and driving is an additional stressor, and, potentially, the fear of getting older and having to shoulder the many burdens of responsible adulthood. Some kids have mentioned, too, that it bugs them that their parents have put apps on their phones that allow the parents to track their every move–including how fast they are driving.

If you are wondering whether this shift is COVID shutdown-related, it apparently isn’t; the statistics show a gradual declining trend in licensure of 16-, 17-, and 18-year-olds since the high water mark in the early ’80s.

This reluctance to drive on the part of some of today’s kids may strike us as weird, but it really isn’t. The world has changed, the life experiences of kids have changed, and it’s therefore not surprising that teenage attitudes about driving would change, too What do those changed attitudes mean, long-term, in other areas of life, for the generation that is currently coming of age? We’ll have to see–but the reluctance by many to drive suggests that we certainly shouldn’t expect them to share all of our viewpoints.

Backing Into Crankiness

When you drive into a parking lot, do you pull forward into an available spot, or do you pull past the open spot and then back into it? Have you given much conscious thought to the issue of which approach you take, or has your parking practice become an ingrained habit, like the order in which brush your teeth and wash your face in the morning?

Who cares whether you park head-in or back-in, you might ask? Well, the guy who wrote this article cares, and cares very deeply indeed. He thinks people who back into parking spaces are stupid, selfish, and perfectly content to waste the time of other drivers who have to sit there, tapping their steering wheels in frustration, while the back-into-the-space drivers complete their parking maneuvers at an elephantine pace. Never mind that you can find articles, like this one and this one, that argue that backing into parking spaces is the safer course. The writer rejects all of that, believes you are as likely to have a fender-bender when you are backing into a spot as when you are backing out of one, and states (with probably only slight exaggeration) that he considers people who back into parking spots to be–and I am quoting here–“history’s greatest monsters.”

The point of this post isn’t to further fan the flames of debate about whether you should back in to parking spots or not. I happen to be a head-in parker, but I recognize that this is one of those areas where there is legitimate room for different approaches, and American drivers should be free to choose between them. No, my point is simply to note that when you reach the point of writing passionately worded pieces about parking techniques, and urging people to take stopwatches to parking lots to time ingress and egress, you’ve arrived at crank status. A tipping point has been reached, and what would normally be a quickly forgotten irritation instead dominates your thoughts, you become convinced that your perspective is the right one, and the urge to vent becomes so overwhelming that you just can’t resist it.

At that point, you can be officially welcomed to the Curmudgeon Club, whose membership numbers in the millions. Now, if only the crankiness impulse were limited to writing screeds about parking . . . .

Thoughts From The Southern Route

Yesterday, when I approached the I-71/I-76 intersection, my inner Clint Eastwood Dirty Harry voice asked if I felt lucky, and I did–so I took the southern route. And sure enough, as I rolled along I-76 in Ohio, I-80 in Pennsylvania, and I-84 in Pennsylvania, New York, and Connecticut, my luck held up. The weather was perfect for driving–dry and sunny–and I made excellent time. It all changed, unfortunately, when I passed Hartford and entered Massachusetts.

Once I-84 emptied into I-90, and I turned onto I-495 to loop around Boston, the traffic got heavy and moved into the frustrating stop-and-go mode, giving rise to the two eternal questions for drivers. The first is: if there are no accidents and there is no road work, why does stop-and-go traffic, where you actually have to come to a dead halt on an interstate highway, happen at all? Why doesn’t traffic continue to move forward at a steady, if slower, pace? Is it that somebody changed lanes and cut someone off, producing a domino effect of braking that ultimately produced standstills farther back in the line of cars?

I guess that is more than just one question.

And the second question is: why does the lane I pick in stop-and-go traffic always seem to be the slowest lane? I tend to favor the passing lane, reasoning that it will have fewer cars moving back and forth, and no one entering from access ramps, but yesterday the left lane was the worst for stoppages by far. The middle lane was better, and the far right lane seemed to have the smoothest traffic flow, notwithstanding the people coming onto the highway. Is that always true, and if so, why? And why would the left lane ever be anything other than the lane that had the smoothest traffic flow?

Finally, there is the E-ZPass issue. Do you get one, or not? Toll roads, and the use of E-ZPass rather than depositing money to a toll booth attendant, is clearly a northeastern phenomenon, as the above map demonstrates. If you’re driving east, E-ZPass definitely makes things easier, as you can roll past interstate toll booths without stopping, knowing that someone somewhere is logging your movements and charging you electronically, and you don’t have to fume about the person in front of you who moves up to the toll booth without having their payment handy, causing even more delay. I’ve not gotten E-ZPass because I just don’t feel like I would use it much, and there’s something about it that just irks me from a privacy standpoint. But on yesterday’s drive it became clear that we’re being tracked, whether we use E-ZPass or not, because on many of the toll roads there are no booths and the signs announce that if you don’t have an E-ZPass you’ll just be billed–which means your car is being photographed and the license plate information is being used to send you a bill. E-ZPass doesn’t seem any more intrusive than that.

Jack Kerouac wouldn’t be able to drive anonymously on the tollways of the northeast U.S. in the same way he traveled incognito in On The Road. In the western half of the country, where there aren’t nearly as many toll roads, it might still be possible. I do find myself wondering, though, about a question that I don’t think was addressed in On The Road: when Jack Kerouac encountered stop-and-go traffic, which lane did he choose?

The Northern Route Or The Southern Route

Today I’m getting up early and driving back to Maine. That means I’ll be making a crucial choice: the northern route, or the southern route?

It’s the kind of tough, coin-flip decision of which road trips are made. The “southern” route takes me on I-76, on I-80 though northern Pennsylvania, then up I-84, past Scranton, to slice across southern New York and then head north through Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire. The northern route, on the other hand, takes I-71 to I-271 and then up to I-90 and follows it through northern Ohio, the stub of Pennsylvania where Erie is located, then past Buffalo and across the entire width of New York and pretty much the entire width of Massachusetts, too.

Which way to go? Do you take the risk of hitting a lot of traffic as you pass the Cleveland suburbs, Buffalo, Rochester, and Albany on the I-90 route, or is the bigger risk the crummy road conditions and inevitably crappy traffic in the Scranton-Wilkes Barre corridor or as you roll through Hartford, Connecticut? Do you take the I-90 turnpike toll road, dealing with the issues that arise when, like all Midwesterners, you don’t have one of those “EZ Pass” units that allow you to zip through the toll stations, or do you enjoy the pleasures of the freeway? Which route is more likely to have a disabling accident, or active roadwork that will back up the traffic for miles?

I’ve driven both routes, and it’s basically six of one, half a dozen of the other. They are so close in terms of distance and likely travel time that even the most careful analysis could be upset by simple bad luck. I won’t be deciding for sure until I hit the spot on I-71 for the I-76 turnoff and go with a gut check. At that point, I’ll ask myself, in my best Dirty Harry voice: “Well, punk? Do you feel lucky?”

Road Radio

It’s been a while since I’ve listened to the radio for an extended period. This weekend’s air travel mishap, and the resulting need to drive from Bangor, Maine to Columbus, Ohio, changed all that. I got a substantial diet of radio offerings as I rolled through Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, and finally into Ohio.

Some things about radio have changed, dramatically, and some have stayed the same. If you’re looking for NPR or classical music, for example, you’re going to want to look around the low end of the FM dial, just as you always have. (Good luck finding classical music, though; I tried, again and again, and regrettably there doesn’t seem to be much of it on the airwaves these days.) Sermons and church music tend to be clustered there, too. If you’re looking for sports or aggressive political talk, on the other hand, you’ll want to switch over to AM. (I stuck to FM until I got to Ohio, when I decided to risk brief exposure to political screeds in search of some coverage of the Buckeyes, Browns, and Guardians.)

Popular radio–that is, everything you’d find above 92 on the FM dial–seems to have gone through a consolidation phase, in two ways. First, in different states you’ll find that five or six formerly independent radio stations based in different cities and towns have jointed together and become one station playing the same content that you can listen to at various channel settings as you drive along. These consolidated stations tend to have generic names like “The River.”

And that phenomenon has produced the second form of consolidation: there’s a lot less content variety on the radio than there used to be. Classical music and jazz aren’t the only victims. A local station in the past might play “Polka Varieties” featuring Frankie Yankovic, or crop reports. You’re not going to get that any longer. Flipping through the radio dial on my journey produced a lot of soulless modern country stations and mushed together “classic rock” options that might play songs from the ’60s to the ’90s. And the “classic rock” stations seem to have the same playlists, too. I heard Queen’s Another One Bites The Dust no less than four times during my drive. and got heavy doses of Bon Jovi, Cheap Trick, and Heart, too. Surprisingly, to me at least, I didn’t hear a single Beatles tune until I got to Ohio and tuned in a Youngstown station that was playing Let It Be.

And here’s another thing: there don’t seem to be actual, live DJs anymore–at least, not on Friday night and Saturday. I didn’t hear what seemed to be a live voice on any station until I turned to a sports station in Ohio. Most of the stations seemed to be going with totally recorded playlists. If you’re aspiring to be a radio DJ these days, good luck.

I’ll be driving back to Maine next weekend, as part of the continuing fallout from modern air travel hassles. Already I’m bracing myself for more airings of Living On A Prayer and I Want You To Want Me. It’s not the greatest music in the world, but it beats the political craziness. And that’s about the best you can say about the state of road radio these days.

Irrational “Rebooking“

Traveling by air seems to get worse by the day. Yesterday I experienced a new variation in irrationality that made the travel experience worse than ever.

I was flying from Bangor. Maine to Columbus through D.C. After checking the monitor in Bangor and seeing everything was a “go,” I got a text message that the D.C. to Columbus flight had been abruptly cancelled for some unstated reason. When I was digesting that unhappy bit of news, I got the message that the airline had “rebooked” me on a flight leaving this afternoon, meaning I’d have to find a hotel room near Reagan National and spend the night. I’ve had that happen before. What made this “rebooking” even more ridiculous was that it had me flying today from D.C. to Asheville, North Carolina—away from Columbus, if you consult your map—then flying from Asheville to Charlotte, and then finally from Charlotte to Columbus. A three-legged trip, with all of the attendant risk of delays and more cancellations, that would get me in a day later than planned, with a hotel hassle to boot? That’s a “rebooking “ only in the most absurd sense of the word.

There were no rental cars available in D.C. for a one-way ride to Columbus, either. Fortunately, I drove to the Bangor airport, so the obvious answer was to drive back to Columbus. That’s why I’m writing this from a Homewood Suites room in bucolic Southington, Connecticut.

Sure, gas is expensive, and driving takes time. But given the airline shenanigans I’ve experienced lately, my circle of preferred driving range keeps getting wider.

COVID Casualties Of The Travel Variety

COVID-19 continues to be the gift that keeps on giving, affecting not only health but also creating many other unexpected changes–in how, and where, and even whether we work, how we shop, how kids are educated, how we travel, and countless other aspects of American life. COVID has caused some business to close and others to reap record profits, and now it’s making life difficult for regional airports.

Those of us who don’t use regional airports probably haven’t noticed, but the airlines are retrenching and pulling routes back from the smaller markets, and are citing COVID as the reason. In November, United Airlines announced that it was pulling out of 11 cities, and this week Delta announced that it was cutting seven routes, including suspending service to three airports entirely. Lincoln, Nebraska, Grand Junction, Colorado, and Cody, Wyoming are the three cities that are being dropped from the Delta flight list. A Delta spokesperson said: “”Due to ongoing travel demand impact from the pandemic, we have made the difficult decision to suspend Delta Connection service to these markets.”

That’s hard news to take for the travelers who use the regional airports that are affected, because the law of supply and demand teaches that with every drop in supply–in this case, of flights–the prices of the remaining options are going to increase. That means if you’ve got to fly to Lincoln or Grand Junction in the future, brace yourselves for sticker shock, at least until some small regional airline decides to start service in those locations. And if you live in an area serviced by other regional airports, keep your fingers crossed that your travel demand statistics are robust enough to keep the airlines servicing your airport, thereby producing competitive prices and justifying the money that your tax dollars spent to build the airport in the first place.

The “ongoing travel demand impact from the pandemic” that the Delta spokesperson mentioned is worth thinking about, too. Are people not traveling because they are concerned about their health, or because they have seen so many things get cancelled as new variants crop up and sweep across the globe, or because people feel that the masking and testing requirements that apply to air travel are so unpleasant that they’d rather stay home? And in the case of the smaller markets, how many travelers have decided that they would rather just drive to their destination and avoid the cancellation risk and the masks? It makes you wonder whether the impulse to just drive rather than fly, like the impulse to work from home, will be a permanent byproduct of the COVID years.

Keeping To Tree Speed

Yesterday we drove over to Crockett Cove for a tulip show. It’s one of the more remote, less populated parts of the island, covered with what looks like a primeval forest. To get to our destination we followed a narrow gravel road — just wide enough for our car, without much wiggle room to either side — that wound through the trees for miles. At one point we passed this sign, which gave us a chuckle. I found myself wondering if the red car displayed at the bottom of the tree trunk, where bark had been knocked or scraped off, was a testimonial to an actual fender bender in the past.

Who needs a posted speed limit when trees are going to be effective enforcers of careful driving?

Driving Reflexes

Last night Kish and I went out for dinner for Valentine’s Day. Our restaurant destination was within walking distance, but given that many of the sidewalks along the way are still snow- and ice-covered, and the fact that it would be dark by the time we walked home, we decided driving was the safer approach.

As I got into the car, I realized with a start that it was the first time I’ve been behind the wheel of the car for . . . well, I don’t know exactly how long. Weeks, for sure, and maybe a full month. There has been no period in my adult life where I have gone for such a long period without driving. And the reason is: there’s just been no reason to drive anywhere. Kish has been out, but I’ve limited my movement to walking around our neighborhood, walking to work on a few occasions, walking to get a haircut, and walking to restaurants. It actually felt weird to slide into the driver’s seat.

We use the car so infrequently, and for such short trips, that we couldn’t even remember the last time we filled the tank. When was the last time you ever wondered about that? Gas prices are going up, apparently, but we certainly aren’t contributing any pressure to the demand side of the pricing equation.

Although it felt strange to drive, the deeply ingrained driving reflexes and motor memory came back with a rush. Driving again was like riding the proverbial bicycle. Still, the experience did make me think that I should take the car out every once in a while, just to keep the reflexes sharp. Put me down for a Drivers’ Ed refresher course.

Masked Driving

We took a long drive this week.  It was our first extended road trip in a while, but it also was interesting in other ways as well.  In fact, I would say it was one of the more memorable drives I’ve ever taken.

b3effd_ltptolls020411It’s as if the country is reawakening from a long sleep.  Some people are up and wide awake, some are groggy from the long slumber, and some are still snoring.  As a result, the roads weren’t nearly as busy as you would normally expect on the Thursday before the Memorial Day weekend.  In the early morning hours in Ohio, we saw lots of trucks on the road — a good sign, incidentally, for a resurgence in the nation’s economy — but virtually no cars.  By mid-morning, as we rolled through northern Pennsylvania on I-80, the trucks still dominated the road and cars remained few and far between.  The traffic picked up as we skirted New York City and Boston, but we didn’t hit any stoppages, even with lots of road construction.  As a result, we made excellent time.

The lack of traffic is one reason why the Cannonball Run record — the wholly illegal effort to make the fastest drive from the Red Ball garage in New York City to the Portofini Inn in Redondo Beach, California — has been broken repeatedly during this national shutdown period.  The new record now stands at less than 26 hours, which is mind-boggling and makes you wonder about the top speed reached as the cars zipped through the wide-open western states.

But the lack of traffic wasn’t the only reminder of the coronavirus.  As has now become the norm, for me at least, once you are out of your personal space you become acutely conscious of every common surface you touch.  Refueling means touching buttons on the gas pump and holding the nozzle.  You don your mask as you enter gas stations — some stations have signs saying that masks are mandatory — and think about the safest way to open the bathroom door, flip up the toilet seat, and flush the commode if you need to use the facilities.  (Your prim and proper grandmother was never more worried about the cleanliness of rest stops than you are right now.)  At one stop, as I stood masked and trying to do my 20 seconds of vigorous, soapy hand-washing, a trucker stood next to me and brushed his teeth, which was a bit unnerving.

You put your mask on, again, as you pay at toll booths, which is probably the best argument ever for getting EZ Pass and just rolling on through.  Every toll booth worker was wearing masks and gloves, and at the I-84 toll booth in New York City the attendant applied some kind of disinfectant to the dollar that I handed her.  It makes me wonder if COVID-19 will drive another nail in the coffin of cash and spur faster adoption of contactless payment card technology.  For that matter, it makes me wonder if toll booths where you can actually use the nation’s currency also aren’t going to be around for long.

In all, a very memorable trip.  The coronavirus continues to affect just about everything.

All-Day Drive

It was a day when the sun rose in the rear view mirror and set in the front windshield, framed by the trees lining Interstate Route 80 in western Pennsylvania. A day when your butt gets sore from sitting in a car seat for hours as you roll down highway after highway. A day when you’re reminded just how gross and crowded highway rest stops can be. When you move from sports talk shows dealing with Boston teams to talk radio about New York teams to chatter about Pittsburgh teams and finally careful takes on Cleveland teams. When you start in an oceanfront town and end up in the heart of the Midwest. When you realize there’s a classical music desert from Boston to Pittsburgh but you’re never out of earshot of Christian music or conservative talk radio. When you get a sense of just how big the country really is.

One very long day, and 1,000 miles covered. And now it’s finally over.

Right Turns On Red

I’ve written before about the perils of pedestrianism in modern urban America.  Walkers really have to mind their Ps and Qs whenever they approach an intersection.  Cars rocketing through red lights, or trying to squeeze past pedestrians who are already in the crosswalk, or gliding into the crosswalk to make a rolling right turn on red, clearly aren’t thinking about us — at all — so we really need to look out for them.

no-turn-on-redjpg-8e01337c7948434eSo when I saw this article in the Washington Post about the District of Columbia’s evaluation of whether to end right turns on red, I read it with interest.  It’s been a really bad year for traffic accidents in our Nation’s Capital, with deadly crashes involving 12 pedestrians, three cyclists, and a person riding a scooter.  That’s a pretty shocking death toll, and it’s caused D.C. to reevaluate its policies — including allowing right turns on red at intersections — as part of an effort to cut down on car[people collisions.

Two points about the article were of interest to me.  The first is that right turns on red was primarily the result of a federal policy adopted in the ’70s, during the “energy crisis” days.  Right turns on red were viewed as a way to reduce oil and gas consumption, and federal policy was directed toward strongly incentivizing cities to allow that driving maneuver as an energy conservation measure.  And the second is that the impact — an uncomfortable word under these circumstances — of allowing right turns on red on the number of traffic accidents really doesn’t seem to be significant, as a statistical matter.  One early study, undertaken shortly after “right turn on red” was adopted as a policy, showed a big increase in crashes, but more recent studies, performed after drivers became used to the rules, indicate that the effect of right turn on red is negligible.

My personal pedestrian experience tells me that right turn on red is a perfectly safe maneuver — if drivers are paying attention and following the rules.  The problem is that some drivers don’t do that.  They roll directly into crosswalks and intersections, looking only to their left at oncoming traffic, without considering that there might be pedestrians entering the intersection — just as there are some drivers who routinely run through red lights.  I’m convinced that it’s not the policy, it’s the drivers who are a problem.

And for that reason I really question whether eliminating right turns on red would make a difference.  I routinely cross an intersection where right turns on red are not allowed.  That makes no difference to some of the drivers — they take a right turn on red anyway.  Unless our police are rededicated to enforcing basic traffic rules, which doesn’t seem to be a high priority for law enforcement right now, there’s not going to be a significant improvement in traffic safety, whether the policy changes or not.

Right turn on red or not, pedestrians just need to be wary.  It’s a hazardous world for walkers.