Are Our Driving Skills A Collective Effort?

EDITOR’S NOTE: There has been a lot of public discussion about the increase of people walking or riding bicycles this summer, and the apparent increase of conflicts with people in cars. I’ve been asked to address the issue and I’ve been trying to do it in one big manifesto…that isn’t happening, and so I throw out this one attempt; more will follow. 

How’s Your Driving?

Most Americans believe that they are above average divers; despite the statement’s impossibility.  A recent Allstate survey shows that despite a pugnaciousness about our skills behind the wheel, most of us knowingly practice dangerous driving. A few of the survey’s disconnects are, that despite 64% of American drivers rating themselves as “excellent” or “very good” drivers, the survey shows that:

  • Eighty-nine percent say they’ve driven faster than the posted speed limit, and 40 percent say they’ve driven more than 20 miles per hour over the limit.
  • Almost half (45 percent) say they have driven while excessively tired – to the point of almost falling asleep.
  • Fifteen percent say they have driven while intoxicated, with men almost four times more likely than women to have done so (23 percent of men versus six percent of women).
  • More than one-third (34 percent) have sent a text-message or email while driving, but the prevalence of the practice changes by age group.
  • Seven in 10 American drivers say that as a result of being distracted while driving, they have slammed their brakes or swerved to avoid an accident, missed a traffic signal, or actually caused an accident.
  • Fifty-six percent of American drivers say they have been involved in an accident, but only 28 percent of them say the accident was their own fault.
* via PR Newswire.

My Own Driving

I’m recovering from the “I’m above-average” complex. I believe I’ve done all of the above. I’m beginning to realize that despite having quick reflexes and good eye-sight, there is a world of distractions and nudges in the world conspiring to make driving difficult and dangerous. I’m not even talking about winter driving. An incident from a month ago has been on my mind lately that I’d like to share and is reflective of how I’ve examined interactions between modes on the streets this summer.

A month ago, while driving in downtown Traverse City, I went to make a left from Front St. onto Union St. I checked the light, green, and started my turn when just then a man walking with what I assume to be his 10-year-old son suddenly appeared in the crosswalk. In the end, I wasn’t close to hitting them, but as I revved my engine the boy’s father was certainly startled and my heart jumped. It could have been worse; if I drove something other than a go-cart pretending to be a car (Honda Fit) it certainly would have been.

As far as run-ins go on the streets, this was pretty tame. No one was hurt and I suspect no one was overly traumatized. In fact, it might have served as a useful reminder for those involved and a few observant onlookers that conflict points exists on our streets and it pays to pay attention and be considerate. However, as I ruminated on the situation, there was a lot of contributing variables to this sequence of events that I’d like to throw out there.

Contributing Variables

To begin with, I was late and annoyed that I chose to drive downtown on a busy and stifling hot Saturday afternoon. This contributed to me being blinded by my own needs and personal drama.

Then, I was turning off of a 2-lane one-way street and being closer to the left side of the road creates a blind spot in my car directly where the crosswalk began. If there was a bump-out the duo would have been more visible and once they had a green they would have been 1/3rd of the way across before I even started.

But before I could even think of going, I also had to contend with two giant trucks turning left on a red light as they obviously felt entitled to their left turn because they had waited for the entire cycle without an opportunity; entitlement tends to create dangerous situations. So, I was anxious; would I now miss my green cycle?

Then, the pedestrian himself was distracted: he was on his cell-phone and holding his son’s hand, himself engrossed in an ice cream cone; he was so distracted that he wasn’t even startled. Aiya, as the zen master said, “when crossing the road, be crossing the road.

Those are the known contributing factors; there could be more. Despite the scare to both parties, the two movements could be considered a success. They crossed the road and I made my turn.

I tell the story because it is instructive of what happens 1000’s of times everyday in our little hamlet of Traverse City. Close calls happen all over the place and they contribute somewhat to raising the collective awareness, but there also many that go unnoticed or willfully ignored. Being aware of the multitude of circumstances is not to the loss of personal responsibility, rather to the broadening of our understanding of it. If, and I don’t even like writing it, I would have collided with father and son I would have been responsible and paid the personal consequences. Yet, to improve my awareness it would behest me to more broadly understand the dynamics at play. Namely, those being:

  • Driving is stressful, be aware.
  • People will be there; they are unpredictable & distracted.
  • Expect delays.
  • Our infrastructure is designed for speed; suppress the urge.

What other dynamics might I be missing? 

* photo by doovie

  1. JohnRobertWilliams
    August 15, 2011 at 10:02 am

    Gary, Thanks for this! “Entitlement” (get outta my way, this is MY trip, MY late, MY anxiety, MY street), and RESPECT, or the gross lack of it, contribute to a lot of conflicts. As both a cyclist and a car driver, I note how my attitudes and feelings change while traveling in the two different modes. Cycling is freedom, with a hint of defensiveness, (as in, am I going to get cut off, brushed off, bullied?) Driving is insulated and more of a “video game”, cut off from reality. (I seldom get wet when I drive in the rain, cold in winter) Driving is a disconnect. The metal box and glass screen changes it all, makes it all about the driver and less about the road, the conditions, obstacles, bumps, etc. Climb in the box, push the pedals and you get out in a different place, effortlessly. It’s harder to walk to your parked car, then the rest of the journey. It’s the lack of effort that dulls our senses, changes our “reality”, makes it all about us getting there. Walking and cycling are proactive/interactive…driving is passive….it changes everything, including our perspective of the “right-of-way”, the “people’s place”…it’s not just a place for motorized happenstance. People are in cars, People are on foot, people are on bikes. It’s a place for humans to get from one place to another. It’s not a zoo or a jungle. Wake up and drive, hang up the phone and quit chatting at intersections….pay attention, because ALL of you ARE a lousy drivers with out respect!

  2. August 15, 2011 at 10:37 am

    Great post today, Gary. The (local) infrastructure may have been planned for speed, but that’s not the result in practice. In this town, you’ll get to your destination faster if you go by bike. Even with my excessively slow bike riding pace, I have beat people who drove to the same destination from the same starting point. People are only fooling themselves if they think speeding along any of these streets in and around Traverse City will get them to their destination faster. It never fails every time I drive there is some other driver behind me (usually in a truck or SUV) in a big freakin hurry to race around me just to get to a red light or a traffic bottleneck.

    I do admit to doing every one of those things except the txting/emailing at some point over the years (I have looked at txts, though, just not answered them). And I admit I have been in accidents that were my fault, thankfully no one was hurt. It’s why I finally came to the conclusion that driving and drivers are dangerous no matter how careful and mindful you try to be yourself. You still have to deal with all the other drivers on the streets as well as all the distractions.

    It’s also the reason I so enjoy early morning bike rides here. It’s a completely different feeling than any other time of day. There’s no fear involved since there’s usually no traffic at 5am.

  3. August 15, 2011 at 11:42 am

    Good post. I like the “when crossing the road, be crossing the road” quote. If only there were a way to reduce driver anxiety. hmmmm. I defiantly know what it feels like to be rushing and running late to my supposed really important destination. I have often times caught myself in this head space, and have tried to talk myself out of the anxiousness. (The conversation goes something like…..”I’d much rather be 5 or even 20 minutes late than to have hit someone along the way just to be on time.”) I spose the best way to reduce driver anxiety is to ride a bike…ha!

  4. Anne B
    August 16, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    Great post as always…

    Here’s something else that can factor in, relating to blind spots, I guess. We can’t always know what others can or cannot see, ie, if I am in my car, I don’t have the same visual perspective as a pedestrian or cyclist and vice versa. Great example — I make a left off of Centre Place (west side of Woodmere) onto Woodmere frequently. Depending on the time of day, there is a lot of traffic coming both directions. In order to make a turn safely I have to pull into the crosswalk to see north b/c if I don’t there is a large light pole and a couple of other posts that obscure my view. Cyclists (often on the sidewalk, not in the bike lane) and occasionally pedestrians, shake their fists at times or yell to “get out of the crosswalk,” and I yell back, well, you know me, so you can guess, but it is something along the lines of “I can’t see if I don’t wait here, but thanks for sharing.”

    And, we are all considerably less safe on foot, in our cars, or on a bike due to the use of cell phones. A father walking a kid across a busy intersection while talking on the phone is an idiot and irresponsible. A cyclist texting or talking on a phone while riding is an idiot and irrespeonsible. A driver texting or constantly talking on the phone while driving is an idiot and irresponsible.

    I am more careful and thoughtful thanks to your musings, Gary!

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