Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Expect Delays

I did a lot of driving in the past few days, and it got to the point where I was ready to throttle the next sign that said, "EXPECT DELAYS." I realize the futility of such an act, but it's not like anybody was going to mind me leaving my car parked in the middle of the highway--it's not like we were going anywhere.

I think of how much time we as a society have wasted on sitting in traffic; how much we've polluted our atmosphere; how much gas and maintenance money we've burned. Unless you're listening to a book on tape, having a deep conversation with a passenger, or engaging in some other fulfilling and productive activity, you're unlikely to do anything more worthwhile than flipping between five stations playing the same three AC/DC songs you can't listen to more than once a month.

I said this in 2000 and I said it again in 2010: Dude, where's my flying car? Where's our advanced city planning and our superior mass-transportation system? When will we be able to beam from Ohio to Wyoming? When will drivers on the George Washington Bridge look at a map before cutting across two lanes of traffic to reach the exit that caught them by surprise?

Heck, I'd even settle for an E-ZPass in every car, or artificially intelligent cars that ejected the driver and drove off on their own if they detected any hint of rubbernecking. There are so many factors that contribute to bad traffic, yet it doesn't feel like we're making any progress on any front. I waited years for construction to conclude on a small, simple stretch of highway I traveled on a monthly basis; what hope do complicated, crisscrossing roadways in and around cities have?

We widen the lanes, but we get bigger vehicles. We add more lanes, but we get more vehicles. We introduce alternate routes and quick-pay tolls, but we can't force people to use them. My view on traffic is the same view I have on parenting and medicine: The solution isn't to slap a band-aid on the problem; it's to fix the cause of the problem. Obvious, perhaps, and easier said than done in many cases, but I can't tell whether we're even trying.

People accept that traffic is bad in certain areas or at certain times of day. The band-aid solution is to avoid those areas and driving at those times of day. The lasting solution is one that can hardly be coordinated as easily: Teach your children not to drive like morons.

I drove behind two vehicles that seemed to be playing cat-and-mouse with each other through heavy traffic in an area where the "EXPECT DELAYS" signs had all but replaced the mile markers. The front car had a rear windshield that lifted open, and someone sitting in the back was tossing food or maybe rocks into the open windows of the car in pursuit, weaving back and forth across three lanes of traffic in this manner for--no exaggeration--at least half an hour. All in good fun? Sure, if you ignore the well-being and sanity of every other driver on the road.

There were times when I felt like I was driving a car in the background of an action movie, where nobody cares about all the cars that putter along and explode in the midst of a wild car chase. I might add that this was a movie whose chase scene I didn't care to watch, and that it already took way too much focus to keep my own car a safe distance away from all the other stopping and starting vehicles while simultaneously trying to find something other than "Highway to Hell" on the radio.

The layout of the roads is minor compared to the driving habits of the people using them. Too often we drive around like we're the stars of our own movies, ignoring that the other cars aren't just obstacles, but the method by which real people are just trying to get home. Just as we have unreasonable expectations for the creators of our favorite fandoms, we have unreasonable expectations that our fellow drivers should indulge us in all we do. We don't need to think about how our rubbernecking is slowing everyone down, because everybody else can wait a few seconds for us to see what horrible carnage has occurred. Yeah, but if everybody in all the cars around you starts thinking that, those seconds quickly turn into minutes and hours for anybody who's not at the front of the line.

Courtesy is contagious on the road, as are aggression and stupidity. I find people behaving differently on the road than they would if they were marching in a big line with the drivers of those other cars (say, at a convention), but the reactions to courtesy, aggression, and stupidity are much the same. The difference is that our vehicles frequently act as a fortress of solitude that shields us from the reactions of the people around us.

Maybe we can't redesign all the roads in New Jersey. Maybe we don't have to. A little encouragement to drive like we're surrounded by real people could go a long way. It won't make a difference overnight, but when we're already waiting a few years to get tiny stretches of highway fixed...it's okay to expect delays.

3 comments:

Joseph said...

Yes, but then imagine these reckless drivers in flying cars. But we don't have to worry, since flying cars are always 15 years away.

Matt Link said...

I'd say that all the prospective flying car drivers just need a Mr. Fusion to properly fuel the flying cars (or fuel the minds of those that would invent them), but alas, there isn't far enough road yet to back up to 88 where one can reach the time when we need no roads ;)

Flashman85 said...

Ha! Though I'd like to think that flying cars would be sophisticated enough that they'd have built-in security systems to help prevent recklessness.