May 08, 2006
Now that the summer driving season is upon us, and I am going to be on the highway today, here are some musings on driving.
Driving means never being able to say you're sorry
We need a non-verbal sign for drivers to say "I'm sorry." There have been times when I have inadvertently done something stupid or discourteous while driving, such as changing lanes without giving enough room and thus cutting someone off or accidentally blowing the horn or not stopping early enough at a stop sign or light and thus creating some doubt in the minds of other drivers as to whether I intended to stop. At such times, I have wanted to tell the other driver that I was sorry for unsettling them, but there is no universally recognized gesture to do so.
If we want to thank someone, the raised flat upturned palm works. And there are so many ways to show annoyance at others, ranging from blaring the horn, angry yells, and rude gestures. But there is nothing that says sorry. I think we need one.
When I am walking along the street and pass someone, people almost always make eye-contact, nod, smile, and say "hello" or "how are you?" But when people are in cars, they studiously avoid giving any sign that other people exist. If you stop at a light next to another car, or are cruising along a highway parallel to another car, everyone stares straight ahead. If by chance you make eye-contact, people quickly look away. Why this difference?
It is as if the inside of a car is considered a zone of privacy, although it is almost as public as standing in the street. I am not sure why this is but it does explain why people do things in cars (eat, read, comb their hair, put on makeup, pick their teeth, check for zits, etc.) that they might not normally do in public.
The only exceptions to this rule seem to be if there are friendly-looking dogs or small children in the car. The owners of such dogs tend to welcome attention, and nods and smiles are exchanged. Small children will also wave cheerily to you.
I have been trying a small experiment these last few days. I decided that when I stop at lights or am in a traffic jam, I would glance around and if I make eye-contact with people in adjoining cars, I would smile and nod, just as if I were passing them in the street. Interestingly, only one person so far has made eye contact with me, and we exchanged smiles and nods. Everyone else stares straight ahead, sometimes rapidly turning away after a very brief look.
I hope no one reports me to the police as this weird guy who is smiling at them while driving.
Merging on highways
I am sure everyone has experienced this on highways. You are driving along and see a sign that says your lane is closed ahead and to merge into the adjacent lane. What you will observe is that traffic in your lane will slow down and even stop long before the actual merge point, as drivers seek to blend into the other lane.
It seems to me that the most efficient thing to do is to drive right up to the point where your lane ends and then merge. If you start merging earlier, you are effectively making the amount of highway that has a reduced number of lanes even longer than it is, and thus slowing down your journey even more. But although no one has explicitly told me this, I get the feeling that to do this is impolite, as if I am jumping the queue. So although I feel that the sensible thing to do is to cruise right up to the end and then merge, I succumb to this pressure and merge earlier. Of course, it increases travel time usually by just a few minutes so time is not primarily the issue. The issue is why it seems to be considered impolite to merge early.
Could we start spreading the word that it is actually more sensible for everyone to merge as late as possible?