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.

A Bridge Too Far

Over in the Far East, they’ve just opened the world’s longest sea-crossing bridge.  Connecting Hong Kong, Macau, and the Chinese city of Zhuhai, the bridge cost $20 billion and is 34 miles long.  It took nine years to build, involved the creation of artificial islands, dips into a tunnel under a busy harbor area, and is supposed to be designed to withstand earthquakes, typhoons, and collisions with oversized tankers.

551478a8-d1f0-11e8-81a4-d952f5356e85_1320x770_022145It’s an impressive engineering feat, no doubt — but when I read about the bridge I mostly felt relief that I wouldn’t have to drive across it.

I’m not a big fan of driving on those lengthy bridges that span bays or harbor or rivers.  The towering height over the water, the slightly claustrophobic feeling of being penned in as you cross, and the concern that you are putting yourself totally in the hands of approaching drivers who might be hedging toward the middle — or, even worse, trying to take a photo with their phone — combine to make a long bridge crossing an uncomfortable experience for me.  I grip the steering wheel a little tighter as I cross.

I’m not alone in this.  Years ago, when Kish and I once traversed the colossal Chesapeake Bay bridge, we learned that some people simply could not bring themselves to drive across it — so many people, in fact, that there were drivers stationed at each end to help people make the trip.  Perhaps that’s at least part of the reason why most drivers won’t even have the opportunity to drive on the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai span in their own cars; they’re required to park in Hong Kong and take a shuttle bus or a special hire car to cross the bridge.

If I ever have to cross this new, world’s longest sea-spanning bridge, I’d be happy to have somebody else do the driving.  A 34-mile-long bridge might be a bridge too far for me.

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.

Test Of Patience

In the modern world, patience is most certainly not a virtue.  We expect everything immediately, and feel incredibly put upon in the absence of instantaneousness.  Whether it is service at a store, fast food at the drive-thru window, or a split-second response when we type in a search, we demand an instant response.  And don’t even mention the possibility of the spinning circle of delay on our computer screens!

But sometimes, extreme speed is just not an option.  Consider, for example, driving on a winding two-lane country road behind a rusting panel truck.  Your GPS told you that it would take 90 minutes to get somewhere, and with supreme self-confidence you determined that you could do a little bit better than that.  But you didn’t figure on being behind a truck driver who apparently is being paid by the hour, because he sure is taking his own sweet time about getting to wherever it is he’s going.  Doesn’t he realize that your time is hugely valuable?  Doesn’t he approach his job with the same sense of urgency and need for speed that you apply to everything you do?  Doesn’t he understand that you’ve got to get somewhere, and so does everybody else who is now stacked up behind his sorry, slow-moving, rusting ass?

So you fret, and rage, but there’s not much you can do about it, is there?  Sure, you could take a chance, blindly pass him against that solid yellow line, and hope that no car or truck is approaching on the other side at that same moment in time, but you’re not that hot-headed and reckless, and anyway there’s a pretty steady flow of traffic on that other side.  There are no passing lanes on this road, and you’re not getting the intermittent yellow line when there seems to be a lull in traffic, either.  So . . . there’s really nothing to do but accept the fact that you’re going to be moving at a ponderous pace for the foreseeable future.

You think that maybe there’s something on the radio,so you fiddle with the channel changer and find a song that you like and haven’t heard in a while.  Because you’re passing the scenery at a veritable snail’s pace you can take a good look at the houses and trees, and some of them are really very pretty. now that you mention it.  And there’s something simple and kind of enjoyable about driving at something other than breakneck speed, and just letting the car drip into the swales of the roadway and feeling it gripped by gravity as it banks into a gentle turn on the black asphalt.  It’s really not that bad.  And soon enough, the truck driver is turning off the road, and you realize you’re still right on time, and losing a few seconds or even a few minutes because of that slow-moving truck really wasn’t a big deal at all.

It’s not a bad lesson to learn anew, every once in a while.

 

Driving Forward In The Kingdom

It’s June of 2018.  And as of Sunday, June 24, women in Saudi Arabia are finally legally able to drive.

p06byymkIt’s astonishing when you think about it, but until yesterday the kingdom of Saudi Arabia had maintained a ban on women driving — the only one in the world.  It was one of the most visible elements of differential treatment of men and women in that country.  The decision to finally allow women to drive is part of an effort by the Saudis to liberalize and modernize their benighted internal policies, which have received a lot of international criticism over the years.  And, as is so frequently the case, the move also has an economic component.  The Saudi economy has taken a hit because of oil prices, and allowing women to drive is expected to increase the employment of women and allow them to make more of a contribution to the gross national product.

Not surprisingly, many Saudi women took to the streets in cars to celebrate their ability to do something that women the world over have taken for granted for more than a century.  “I feel free like a bird,” one woman said.  “The jubilance, confidence and pride expressed by Saudi women driving for the first time in their country, without fear of arrest, brought tears to my eyes,” another one wrote.  And Saudi women posted videos of themselves driving on social media.

But let’s not get too excited about the loosening of repressive policies in Saudi Arabia, because a number of activists who strongly advocated for great women’s rights have been jailed and remain behind bars, even as the ban against women driving has been lifted.  Some believe that the jailing is intended to placate the ultra-conservative religious leaders who remain a significant force in the country, and also to send the message that only Saudi leaders — and not activists advocating for changes in Saudi policies — can produce reforms in the kingdom.

It’s a sign that, while lifting the ban on women driving is welcome, Saudi Arabia has a long way to go.  And it’s also a reminder that, in 2018, there are still a lot of repressive policies out there against women that still need to be addressed.