I was a resident of New Jersey from 1995 until 2005, and for the last two years I’ve been living in the DC metro area. I have vague memories of being 18 years old and finding myself on the New Jersey Turnpike in morning rush hour traffic heading toward the Big Apple. I’m pretty sure “terrified” is the best description of how I felt at the time. But my time served in the Garden State turned me into a pretty confident driver, and heavy traffic on city streets or “under-construction” highways just doesn’t phase me any more.
I don’t carry a gun in my car and chase down some other driver who cut me off. I don’t change my destination so I can tailgate them for miles, and I absolutely don’t roll down my window at the next traffic light so I can give them the “one-finger salute.” But I do yell at other drivers from the privacy of my own driver’s seat. And I do that often.
Yeah, me too. Yesterday, I was in Arlington, and the road I needed to follow was being re-paved – one lane was closed. I dutifully moved into the open lane in a safe and early fashion. Dozens and dozens of cars flew past me in the fifteen or twenty minutes that it took for my lane to travel the half mile or so and get through the traffic light at the end of the construction zone. I really wasn’t bothered by these obnoxious people because I knew that the half-mile backup would have stretched out to two miles on city streets if everyone moved over right away. But as we got closer to the merge zone, my irritation grew at the sluggishness of the truck and passenger car right in front of me who seemed to be letting everyone else go first. Polite merging requires that each lane take turns – one car at a time. My NJ driving instincts came out in force, and I sat on the bumper of the car in front of me refusing to allow any additional cars to move over. But I did break a cardinal rule in NJ – if you look, you yield (remember that, Denise, the next time you head on up north! The merest glance at another car indicates that you will allow them the right of way, and this applies to passengers in your car, too!). The woman who was trying to cut in was gesturing madly at me and clearly yelling that she felt she ought to be permitted to merge. Since she hadn’t been sitting in line for as long as I had, I thought her anger at me was completely unjustified, and I let her know it – of course, the only people who heard me were my kids.
The Vatican is getting a lot of ribbing for its recent Ten Commandments for drivers. They are a bit…ethereal (Bring guilty motorists and their victims together, at the appropriate time, so that they can undergo the liberating experience of forgiveness??) I’ve come up with my own list of practical rules:
I. Do not attempt to drive if you are not physically, mentally, or intellectual up to the task. This covers everything from being too drunk or too sleepy to drive to being ignorant of the state or local statutes governing driving.
II. When traveling in moderate to heavy traffic, the posted speed limit is not to be observed. Maintain the speed set by the majority of cars in your lane. Traveling faster or slower than the cars around you creates an unsafe situation. If driving 20 mph over the speed limit in heavy traffic on metropolitan highways frightens you, use a different roadway.
III. Keep to the right as much as possible and allow others to pass. If you decide you want to pass the car in front of you, be sure you can do so quickly and without disrupting the traffic in the other lane.
IV. Know where you are going. If you are lost or confused, safely pull over and figure out what you want to do. Carry a map or have the phone number of your destination handy so you can get directions.
V. Follow the traffic pattern. If you are in a right turn lane, turn right. If you are in a straight lane, go straight. If you do not want to turn, but you are in a turn lane, too bad. Safely figure out a way to turn around after you turn and without creating chaos.
VI. Be considerate of other drivers. Do not make u-turns when other cars are present. Do not attempt to make a left turn out of a gas station onto a busy road. Do not block the progress of traffic in your lane in heavy traffic by waiting for a break to make an illegal left turn. Do not allow private conversations or distractions from the cell phone, other passengers or the radio to affect your driving. Do not block other cars so you can have a conversation with your best friend who just happened to pull up at the light in the lane next to you.
VII. Be aware of the current traffic situation. Look farther up the road. Perhaps the lane is stopped because a tractor-trailer is making a turn up ahead. Don’t block an intersection and prevent left-turners from getting through. If the highway sign says your lane ends in a half-mile and you are driving 60 mph, realize that you will hit the merge point in about 30 seconds and begin looking now for a spot to move over.
VIII. Do not pull into traffic without sufficient room. The smaller the gap, the bigger your engine and the faster your reflexes ought to be. Making other cars slow down to give you time to get up to speed is rude, and often dangerous. Do not pull out in front of a car with no cars behind it.
IX. Do not be Santa Claus in July. Stopping briefly to allow a car to make a left hand turn is nice. Stopping for a minute or two to allow a half dozen cars to make a left hand turn is rude to those behind you who would like to get to their destination sometime today. Stopping traffic to allow someone to make an illegal or extremely inconvenient turn only encourages them to do it again.
X. Do not assume that the big, white 12 passenger van filled with kids is the reason your lane is moving slowly. You can tailgate, flash your lights, and yell obscenities, but I can’t make the little, rusting Dodge Neon in front of me go any faster. And if you find a break in the right lane and try to dart ahead, don’t think I’ll have forgotten your rudeness and will feel disposed to let you get in front of me, even if I do think perhaps that the little, rusting Dodge Neon needs to be run off the road.
I hope everyone has safe travels this summer. I, myself, am heading up to PA and NJ tomorrow for the weekend, and will be traveling half-way across the country a week after that. A girlfriend of mine has a little motto that she (and her kids) say when traveling by car: “Three Hail Marys for a safe and happy trip.” We’ll be praying!