I remember my excitement as my 16th birthday approached and with it, that all-important American rite of passage -- getting my driver's license. Cars, the open road, Bruce Springsteen on the radio: those were the days.
There was another side to my driving experience, though, and it wasn't pretty. Behind the wheel, I became enraged at the smallest infractions of other drivers, frequently sending blistering curses their way. I set a terrible example for my younger brother and sister, something they still mention 40-odd years later.
This is particularly worthy of mention because in no other area of my life did I exhibit such rage. I know now that I was dealing with a lot of other rage-worthy things in my life. For some reason, though, the only place where I could release that anger was behind the wheel of a car.
I am a much more balanced person now than I was then. I've learned healthier ways to deal with life's stresses and rarely suffer from eruptions of rage, whether driving or otherwise. I'm still an impatient driver, though, and am easily irritated by the poor behavior of others (which is never in short supply). When I feel that impatience come over me, I invoke a word we came up with last year while spending two weeks in the Pacific Northwest: pacifica -- peaceful. It reminds me of the meandering route we followed along the Pacific Ocean, from the farthest northwest corner of Washington to the Columbia River gorge.
It also reminds me of a less intense driving style than I'm used to. For two full weeks, I experienced very few of the driving behaviors that most annoy me: tailgating, neglecting to signal turns and lane changes, driving at speeds well above the posted limits on residential streets, speeding through yellow (and red) lights. No one who drives in the more cutthroat eastern half of our country can help but notice this more polite style of driving, and it had a calming effect on my own behavior.
It didn't take long to lose that peaceful feeling upon returning home; my own challenge with patience and equanimity remains a work in progress. So it's as an offender myself that I notice the inconsiderate -- and at times dangerous -- driving behavior I see on a daily basis, both from behind the wheel and on long walks through my neighborhood. Things like speeding up to beat yellow lights and weaving in and out of traffic at dangerous speeds. As a pedestrian, I've learned to pause before venturing into crosswalks despite having the Walk sign; people in my neighborhood regularly run red lights, turn right on red during hours when it's prohibited, and speed excessively on both residential streets and major thoroughfares.
Within the past week, I've had two cars nearly hit me at speeds far in excess of the posted speed limit on local highways, underestimating how much distance they had between me and other cars. And I had one heart-stopping reminder this same week of what's at stake when our impatience gets the best of us.
It happened like this: I turned onto one of the busiest main arteries in my neighborhood at about 9 on a weekday morning. As I rounded the bend, I noticed a young child, no more than 2 or 3, on his plastic bicycle in the opposing lane. Both I and the cars in front of me stopped, and a young woman in front got out of her van, scooped the child up, and took him to safety. Just then I saw another woman racing across the lawn towards the street. The two women exchanged a few words and then the woman in the van handed the child to his mother. Traffic resumed.
As I slowly drove away, I remembered my own active toddler -- the Harry Houdini of car seats. He routinely slipped out of the straps, including in places where I could not easily pull over to buckle him back in. And it wasn't just car seats that failed to restrain him; by 18 months old, he could throw one leg over his crib rail and silently slide down and scoot off, only a flight of stairs away from potential calamity. Some thirty years after the need for hypervigilance has ended, I remain a light sleeper.
So I have great sympathy for the young mother whose child wandered off. I also know it only takes a blink of an eye, a few seconds of inattention -- and a car, exceeding the posted 30 mph speed limit by 10 mph or more, as they routinely do on this stretch of road -- for disaster to strike. It's sheer luck that I wasn't one of those unfortunate mothers painted as neglectful when my own very active toddler was growing up.
Consider this my plea that we all bring our better selves to bear when we're behind the wheel of our cars. I know we're all in a hurry to get to where we're going, but at what cost? Is it worth rear-ending the car in front of you when they stop suddenly because a deer has entered the roadway and you're tailgating? Or causing an accident when you suddenly change lanes without paying adequate attention to other traffic around you?
We can't make all the idiots go away, but we can all do a better job of making sure we're not behaving that way ourselves. Please -- slow down, and be careful out there.