Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Monday, February 28, 2005

Driving, Rant

Driving is a big thing for me. I love to drive, I do, and I try to combine a fairly aggressive approach to the road and to getting where I'm going with basic civility and patience. More often than not, the driver you most resent is one utterly blameless for whatever crime against your intentions has you steamed. I could write a book. And I just might. But for now, one example and counter-example will suffice.

Friday night, in the evening, on my way back to NJ, speeding radically as I often do in the hills east of Pittsburgh, I found myself with a tenacious tail driving a Ford Explorer, of all things; only in the ascending s-curves around Ligonier was I ever able to open any real distance at any speed, and he always made it up eventually. Now, I don't really care what people do behind me, and as long as they keep their distance it's all fine and good. There are some basic courtesies to observe, however, each of which Explorer managed to subvert in the hour or so that I had to deal with him.***

1. Take turns on point. If you're paired up with a driver exceeding the speed limit by a legally relevant margin, whoever leads is most exposed to a speed trap, and at night on an unlit highway like much of the Turnpike, this is no small risk. Because I hate to be behind people, and I seem to hold my speed more steadily than most other drivers, I'll usually take more than my share of time in the lead, and am unworried. For the speeds I drive, my lack of tickets is almost shocking. But if for no other reason than simple kindness, I expect other drivers to step up for a while when I ease off, especially those drivers that hang out consistently within ten or so car lengths of my rear bumper.

2. Don't tailgate a tailgater. Sad but true, that if you want to maintain speed, sometimes the only way to send the message to someone needlessly sitting next to a rig going 70 mph in the passing lane is to ride up on him, at least for a moment (my preferred tactic is to get close just for a moment, than ease back a few lengths, to see if the message has been received). I do not tailgate people in front of me who obviously would prefer to be going faster but cannot because of other obstructing vehicles in front of them. When you're following a kindred speeder, or anyone whose speed preferences circumstances don't allow you to discern, give benefit of the doubt and lay back; let him do the tailgating and message sending for a while and wait for the lane to clear. When I'm up sending a message to someone, and you ride up on me, pinning me between two close cars in my lane and a truck to the right, you leave me no choice but to retreat. Following distance, especially in a car that stops in a distance that is among the best of the short-stopping sport compact class, is not nearly as important as the total distance separating a series of cars in a row. If you're in a slow-stopping Explorer, and you're up on my ass at 80, you leave me no choice but to separate myself from everyone else lest a short stop bring your front bumper piling through my rear window. No message is sent. The speeders are slowed down. Nobody wins.

3. Be nice to your point man. Okay, so let's just say you're a cowardly ass, who is only interested in going fast if someone in front of you does so (over time, I realized this was the case with the Ford Explorer). If nothing else, grant this minimal courtesy: don't be a dick to the driver who's blazing a trail you lack the balls to make for yourself. Unlike Explorer, and many other drivers, even when I'm the fastest car on the road (often), and even when I'll have to return to the left lane to pass shortly, I still duck into the right lane pretty much any time I can. It's intended both as a courtesy to anyone who might come up behind me, as a reminder to other drivers that that's the right way to do things, and, when I'm being closely followed, as an invitation to the other driver to take over for a while. At one point on a mid-state straighaway on Friday night, I ducked into the right lane and slowed to about 80, slower than I had just been traveling for quite a while. It was the Explorer's turn to lead, I figured. He didn't change lanes behind me, and he moved up. Inexplicably, however, he stopped his pass as soon as he was situated on my left quarterpanel, completely in my blind spot. Obviously, I knew exactly where he was, and no other cars were ahead of us at the moment, so it was mostly just an annoyance. If for no other reason than to enable evasive maneuvers in the event of a deer crossing, but also in the interest of not making any other driver more tense or uncomfortable than necessary, I absolutely never hang out indefinitely anywhere near any vehicle's blind spot, or next to any vehicle at all. I can't imagine by the impetus of what deathwish people do this, but they do -- often. Either I'm passing or I'm being passed or I'm out of there. By the time this happened, Explorer and I were already sort of pissed at each other. Repeatedly he'd ridden up on me in the left lane when I was trapped behind someone else; repeatedly, I'd hit the brakes just hard enough to scare him back; and if anything he was becoming more aggressively rude, as though anything I were doing to him were inappropriate to his conduct, a provocation. As he pulled up near me, I nudged the brake, taking myself down to 75. He slowed with me, remaining in my blindspot. At this point, I was utterly livid: with no one behind me as far as I could see, I hit the brakes hard, bleeding twenty miles an hour in an instant, and he carried past me, but only by a length or two: he stopped just as aggressively. Even if he'd thought I'd seen a speed trap, he should have know better: at 75, we weren't at any risk of being pulled over. If anything, the risk of that would go up at 55 in a 65 zone. Laughing incredulously, I dropped the car into 3d gear and sprinted for thirty seconds or so, leaving him a quarter-mile back. Twenty minutes later, however, he caught up. To catch me, I concluded, during those twenty blissfully stress-free minutes he had to have averaged significantly more than the 85+ I maintained, alone and exposed. So it wasn't even a lack of courage that animated his pursuit and his assholery, per se, but rather a selfish determination to make me carry him east.

4. Don't chase sports cars at high speeds in a deathtrap. All of the above disregards the even more alarming fact that an older Ford Explorer has no business seeing any speed north of 75, let alone sustained speeds in the eighties with occasional forays up toward 100. For that reason, and that reason alone, I was content to have him behind me, where the blow-out prone Explorer couldn't hurt me should it suddenly start rolling like a high-speed avalanche of plastic, glass, and steel. If you have a land tank, act like it. If you want to play with sports cars, buy one. If you want to kill yourself, have the respect for others to do it where you can't possibly hurt anyone else in the effort.

I could go on.

The delightful contrast of a skilled, courteous, and swift wingman (actually -woman, I think, though I only got a fleeting glimpse in the dark) came last night. To the girl(?) in the new silver Saturn coupe, who observed religiously each of the above courtesies and still others, a tip of the hat and a latte to keep you up on the midnight highway. In the name of all serial speeders everywhere, godspeed.

*** Such courtesies are neither practical nor expected in New Jersey, where all drivers would be wise always to watch the full 360-degree perspective and should feel free to do whatever they want, anywhere, any time. All bets are off at the NJ border, as it should be.


Anonymous binky said...

You touched on my favorite peeve... the idiot who cycles back and forth between 60 and 80, but gives you the stink eye every time you pass, or ever time he "has to" pass you. Two words: cruise control. (Or I suppose, more than two words, something along the lines of, "pay attention to your f-ing speedometer and quit giving me a look.")

9:30 AM  
Blogger Moon said...

people can pass you at 80? what -- in a driveway? for shame! -- i thought you were a real leadfoot.

9:50 AM  

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