Since the summer I have been teaching my younger daughter to drive. She took her first baby-driver steps driving between rows of parking spots in a huge, empty lot. Then she drove around quiet residential neighborhoods until she could confidently turn on the turn signal and steer at the same time, and I wasn’t constantly slamming on my imaginary brakes. But when we went out into the streets of the real road world, I learned more about other people than I did about my daughter’s driving ability.
In the most public of places we act as if we are in the most private of places, revealing far too much of our personalities. We’re not just surreptitiously picking our noses in our cars—on the whole, we’re selfish and mean, with only the occasional glimmer of kindness.
At first, when the 35mph speed limit was beyond her capabilities, she was constantly honked at, tailgated, cut off, and given looks-to-kill. For goodness’ sake, the girl was trying to drive carefully and all she got for that was an endless line of virtual middle fingers. The worst offenders were, no surprise here—everyone. Who made us all the Grand Patrollers of the Road? Are we all emergency room doctors about to give birth?
But worse than arrogance and impatience is the fact that my daughter no longer thinks the people of the world are law-abiding citizens. How many people has she seen break the laws she studied so thoroughly to pass the “written” test. Folks, we’re going through red lights and stop lights as if they are road spam. We speed and cut each other off and race across double yellow lines because, well, because we want to. The impression that I conveyed to my daughter that the world was, on the whole, a fair and decent place has been trampled. She now doubts everything I ever taught her, except to definitely not pick her nose.
Last week, after she had been yielding for quite some time at a busy intersection to no avail, she asked me why people speed up when they see she is trying to get in? What does a mother say to that, except the absolute truth as I have come to see from the passenger seat: People are selfish, they just care about themselves and getting whatever advantage they can, however insignificant. I had thought that the driving lessons would focus on maintaining distance from the car in front of you, always checking your mirrors, and never glancing at the cellphone, but no, this was the reality that presented itself.
But the other day, thank goodness for that day, there was hope that the world I had explained to her might exist on some streets. She was in the middle lane, signaling to get into the right lane. Three cars sped up, because, well, they could, and passed her. And then, at the light, the woman in the car to our right asked if we want to turn into that lane and that it would be okay. I will add that she was a refined-looking, long-retired woman wearing beige suede gloves. Maybe the manners of days by gone aren’t all gone. And just perhaps, after my daughter has experienced what it’s like to be at the receiving end of both possibilities she will elect to drive and live with civility.
What do we get from our behavior? According to the US Census Bureau, in 2009 there were 10.8 million road accidents and 35,900 deaths. We lose property, we lose limbs, we lose livelihoods, we lose people, we lose a sense of community.
And what are we teaching our young? Sure, it’s a pain to wait at a light when no one’s coming. And it’s annoying that you need to drive at the speed limit when you’re such a good driver and you really really need to get where you’re going. Not to mention those tailgating speed demons who force you to move over, for what? Just so you can wait behind them at a light?
When does it stop? When do we decide that all of the rules apply to each of us, all of the time? It’s not just about breaking rules, it’s about breaking the threads that hold a society together—the threads that create a society.
Have we become islands in our little pods?