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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