This American Gripe

One thing I’ve made myself get used to is that there’s nothing I can do about the way my fellow humans drive. For years and years and years, I’ve gotten steamed about people blowing through stop signs or speeding up and down residential streets and generally acting like idiots behind the wheel. (No doubt I’ve given people to get steamed, too).

I had a moment of enlightenment last fall when I was walking the dog and a car came screaming up the street behind us and went through a stop sign. For some reason, it hit me that it was just a coincidence I happened to be there to see it happen, and it would have happened whether I had witnessed it or not. And if I hadn’t been there–if I had been at a movie or sitting at home reading a book–the guy would have raced through the stop sign and I would have been none the wiser. I would not have gotten upset or started thinking about what an idiot the guy way or gone through any of the usual mental and emotional gymnastics. What the guy did had nothing to do with me, and getting exercised is a waste of energy and attention.

That insight, if that’s what it was, has helped me to stay unengaged on the street. I’m less upset more of the time, and that’s a good thing.

Since last fall, three people have been run down and killed in North Berkeley crosswalks. Two of the deaths occurred at the same corner, the third a block away. It’s not clear to me that anyone was ever charged in the incidents. Unless a driver is drunk or drug-addled or exhibiting some recklessly outrageous behavior, killing someone with your car seems to be regarded as just one of those things that happens.

We live on a street that has two relatively busy thoroughfares at either end. Both of those bigger streets have stop signs close to our street. And over the 20 years we’ve lived here, we’ve become used to the fact that most of the drivers who do slow to what passes for a stop here in Berkeley do so only grudgingly. The implicit impatience–for instance, the cars that continue rolling through the intersection as you cross, the cars that avoid stopping at all so as to get through the intersection before you can step off the curb–is obvious and constant. And I’m not one to stroll ostentatiously across the street, either–since I’m a driver in my other life, I know driver-kind is anxious to get a move on.

So right there is one time that my little mental trick–hey, that guy swerving across the double-yellow line and ignoring the oncoming traffic: as far as I’m concerned, he’s not really there–doesn’t work so well. When you’re actually in the crosswalk and have to interact, however indirectly, with the driver who is worried about not making the next traffic light a block away, that driver really is there.

Late this afternoon: It was a beautiful day here in Berkeley. We were crossing the street over to the school where we sometimes let the dog run. A couple weeks ago, an acquaintance was crossing at this same corner–there’s a stop sign and a crosswalk, all installed to make it safer to get to the school. A driver rolled through the stop sign and hit her dog, who somehow was not seriously injured.

So there we were. We started to cross. There was a car to our left. The driver didn’t stop; instead, he steered around us as he continued on. There was a car to our right. That driver didn’t stop, either. He continued to roll.

I won’t go into detail about what objects or epithets may have flown through the air during this intersection encounter. It’s not an episode that reflects well on me. I can repeat that one of the drivers explained, somewhere amid a bouquet of f-words, that “I didn’t come anywhere close to you” as he rolled through the stop sign into the crosswalk. In other words: Buddy, you’re not under my car. What are you complaining about?

Eventually, I calmed down and though about all this. It’s true there’s nothing I can do to change driver behavior, and nothing is less effective than getting angry with them. Still, what gets to me is what I think I see in these incidents: the basic lack of awareness or care when drivers get behind the wheel that other people are out there in the world and that yes, it’s necessary to grant them a shred of attention every once in a while. What a way to live.

Technorati Tags:

One Reply to “This American Gripe”

  1. At least in Chicago, the drivers have the good grace to yell out the window to us with a command to walk faster (at the crosswalk) before they hit us!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *