Right of way

Driving amazes me. It is practically a leitmotif in any conversation about driving to complain about how bad (other) drivers are, but I am fascinated that the thing works as well as it does. I have been driving regularly in the Twin Cites only since last fall, when a set of wheels to call my own became a reality for the first time. It has been a revelatory experience, not just because it doesn’t take 3 hours to get groceries anymore, but because the view of the world is very different from behind the wheel.

I find it almost breath-taking how much we trust other drivers. We may not think that we trust other drivers, but we do so deeply and implicitly. If we did not, the whole enterprise would fall apart, and we would never make it through a green light with oncoming cars waiting to make a left turn. We simply trust that they will wait until we have swept past them before they spin the wheel and hit the gas. I cannot express to you how amazing I find this.

When I was learning to drive as a timid fifteen-year-old bookworm, I recall keeping in mind a doggerel I had gleaned from long hours spent pouring over the Twelfth Edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations:

This is the grave of Mike O’Day
Who died defending his right of way.
He was right, dead right, as he sped along,
But he’s just as dead as if he’d been wrong.

Due caution is certainly of utmost import, as the anonymous poet so delightfully conveys. But the high-speed dance that we perform with tens of thousands of our fellow citizens zipping along, all lost in our daily drama, encased in our wheeled conveyances-guillotines-coffins, is a mystifying and mesmerising.

Next time you head into the snarl of four-lane urban streets, don’t take your eyes off the road or your hands off the wheel, but keep half a thought to take in how much you take for granted that the driver in the oncoming turn lane is not going to kill you — as he or she so easily could — not because they are actually paying attention to the road as they finish up the day’s trading on their crackberry, but simply because, deep down below what is left of their consciousness, they know the rules of the dance, and more often than not obey them.

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