Tuesday, September 04, 2012

The Most Interesting Driver in the World

Barnaby Barford
Recently circumstances have conspired to make it necessary for me to drive hundreds of miles all over New England. I don't often drive. The last time I owned a car was over a decade ago, and I haven't missed it. I bicycle a lot, plus Boston's public transportation is not too awful. When I do need a car, I either use a Zipcar, or I rent one.

Driving is by far the most dangerous activity I engage in. Both government statistics and ample anecdotal evidence show that bicycling through Boston rush-hour traffic, or sailing off into the stormy North Atlantic on a small sailboat, or flying halfway around the world on a semi-regular basis, or riding buses and trains wherever I go—all of these modes of transportation are much safer than climbing behind the wheel of a car, strapping yourself down, and driving it on the highway. My engineer's mind rebels against such dangerously inferior technology. It appears that cars are mankind's second worst invention, after nuclear fission. To drive a car is to acquiesce in the suicidal stupidity of our species.

Never mind all that, I just don't like to drive. Being trapped for hours on end in a padded sheet metal box rolling through a desolate landscape of tarmac, highway signs and mowed margins is like being trapped inside a sensory deprivation experiment. Operating a car is a menial chore that reduces the mind to that of an insect crawling along single-file with other insects. Why is it that, after some 20 years of formal schooling, perhaps another 10 of self-education, and half a lifetime of valuable experience, I am suddenly being forced to accept the job of a chauffeur—a job comparable to that of a janitor, a landscaper or a security guard, which are all jobs that should not require even a high school diploma?

Before we get too far, I would like to say something to those who drive every day: You are welcome. Yes, I know that I am forced to pay taxes to subsidize your driving even if I don't drive. I still have to pay for your highways and your fossil fuel subsidies and your military expenditure to secure the oil supplies and your traffic law enforcement. I also have to subsidize your medical treatment when you suffer a car crash, as well as your subsequent disability compensation. I even have to pay for your food stamps, because you can't afford to both drive a car and eat, but drive a car anyway. I suppose I could be bitter about this, but I am an ungrudging, magnanimous sort of person, and so I say, “You are welcome. Enjoy your subsidy.” Some show of gratitude would, of course, be welcome, but gratitude is not something one can demand.

Also, I do understand the juvenile urge to head out on the open road. A long time ago, in my youthful exuberance, I did my share of road trips, and the path of my meanderings scribbled all over substantial portions of the US, Canada and Mexico. I also received my share of speeding tickets, especially in New Hampshire, a southern state that accidentally came to be wedged against the Canadian border. New Hampshire's rinky-dink economy is propped up by the three pillars of the Portsmouth Naval Yard, Mitt Romney's checkbook and a huge stack of speeding tickets handed out to tourists. But that was before I discovered The System. The System has allowed me to always be speeding while avoiding speeding tickets entirely. I have not received a single speeding ticket since I adopted The System. I wish to share The System with you, out of the goodness of my heart, so that you too can benefit from it.

As I mentioned, I don't often drive, but when I do I drive in the leftmost lane at exactly 9.5 mph over the speed limit. This is done exclusively under cruise control; once on the highway, I do not touch the pedals except in case of emergency. Nor do I speed up or slow down unless the speed limit changes; once the cruise control is set to the right speed (calibrated via GPS if possible, since speedometers tend to be inaccurate up to ±3.5 mph) the only two buttons I use are “cancel” and “resume.” I press “cancel” if there is someone in front of me going slower than 9.5 mhp over the speed limit; I press “resume” once the safe braking distance (one car length for each 10 mph of speed) is restored. I also sometimes press “cancel” and “resume” rhythmically if drivers behind me are blatantly violating the safe braking distance rule. This sometimes causes their heads to explode, helping to keep the gene pool from becoming overgrown with pond scum. But most of the time I just cruise along, at 64.5 mph in the 55-mph zone, or at 74.5 mph in the 66-mph zone, and everyone lines up in an orderly convoy behind me, doing all the things that go along with driving (sexting each other, polishing their nails, masturbating, looking for new tunes on their mp3 player, slurping carbonated corn syrup out of a sippy-cup, or as many of the above at the same time as humanly possible).

The reason for this strict self-imposed speed limit is that the police only give tickets to those who exceed the speed limit by more than 10 mph. This is an unwritten rule, but it has been experimentally validated over an extended period of time. You should, of course, feel free to reproduce my results (I believe in the scientific method) but I have to warn you that such research tends to be expensive and cause travel delays. There is some anecdotal evidence that speeding by up to 13 mph may be relatively safe, but I feel that investment into research in this domain has already achieved diminishing returns.

There are several reasons why The System requires driving in the leftmost lane. First, the left lane is least likely to have slower traffic in it. Some highways sporadically display the sign “Slower traffic keep right,” which most people tend to obey. Obviously, the reason I do not keep right is because I am not slower traffic: I am faster traffic—so fast I am borderline illegal. Of course, if someone has a legitimate need to pass me (emergency vehicles, ambulances, police) then I change lanes to let them pass. As for the rest, I refuse to serve as an enabler for reckless driving or wanton disregard of traffic laws. Other highways (especially in hilly or mountainous areas) display the sign “Keep right except to pass,” and I, of course, obey it.

Second, the left lane tends to be the least potholed and rutted, because many highways ban trucks from the left lane, and this results in a smoother, more pleasant ride. Third, whereas driving in other lanes forces one to pay attention to three lanes, front and back, all at the same time, driving in the left lane makes it possible to just pay attention to what's directly in front and what's directly in the back, paying almost no attention to what's on the right. In fact, it is a good idea to pay no attention to what is on the right, because the next-to-leftmost lane, in my experience, tends to be populated by demented people who drive erratically, scream with the window rolled down, and use lewd hand gestures. But I can't hear what they are saying, because I like to listen to symphonies when I drive, so that their pathetic screams are drowned out by the majesty of the Jupiter, the Pastorale or the Ode to Joy (to which I sometimes sing along at the top of my lungs). I sometimes catch glimpses of them out of the corner of my eye, but generally I don't even notice them because I only need to look straight ahead or in the rear view mirror.

One criticism I have heard of The System is that it deprives the police of revenue from speeding tickets. This, I agree, is a legitimate concern, but I assure you that there is no need to worry. You see, there is a certain small but significant number of drivers who, after driving at exactly 9.5 mph over the speed limit for some duration, feel compelled, for reasons that remain mysterious, to shift one lane to the right and to floor the gas pedal for a while. From the perspective of the traffic police, this is like having a large, fat fish jump straight into your boat, and many a time have I seen such drivers pulled over on the side of the road just minutes after the onset of their episode of uncontrolled speeding. Most people don't suffer from this syndrome, and drive behind me in an orderly convoy, sexting each other, polishing their nails, masturbating, looking for new tunes on their mp3 player, slurping carbonated corn syrup out of a sippy-cup, or as many of the above at the same time as humanly possible. Thus, The System helps make speeding fines even more of a tax on stupidity then they are normally (along with other taxes on stupidity, such as the lottery and gambling) making it a good way to see to it that “The fool and his money are soon parted.”


Sixbears said...

. . . and yet, there you go.

You know better, but to live in the world you have take part in crazy things.

Tempted to cast off the dock lines and sail away?

RickG said...

Sorry, but I didn't appreciate this post very much. I'm rather tired of folks whining about how terrible things are--I agree they're awful--without offering any alternatives.

I find the author's limited use of a car laudable. He's obviously had the advantage of living in close proximity to public transportation, as imperfect as it may be. However, it's not so easy if one lives in a rural area as I do, although not impossible either. More than anything, limiting my use of a car means being more conscious of how I live. With each step I take to disconnect myself from the system (i.e., our Western lifestyle), my need for things like a car decreases. So, for example, the more food I grow in my backyard, the less often I have to burn fuel driving the 40-mile round trip to a market (farmers- or super-). That I have the added benefits of good-tasting, nutritious and chemical-free food, not to mention exercise and fresh air, are icing on the cake.

Speaking of "Systems", I have one of my own on the rare occasions I use the highway. I get in the far *right* lane, set the cruise control 5 to 10 mph *below* the posted speed limit and let anyone who feels the need to go faster pass me. Not only does it reduce my stress--I don't worry about the police, and I get to enjoy the scenery a bit more--but I save a significant amount of fuel.

The fact of the matter is that each of us (at least the ones who "get it") is living with one foot in two worlds: the old, dying one and the one being born. Admittedly, it's not easy. Change, whether on an individual or collective basis, occurs incrementally (unless there's a sudden system-wide collapse--and I don't preclude that from happening--and then all bets are off).

New Englander said...

Take the back roads if you have time. You see more, save fuel, and exercise your brain as you try to maintain some idea of where you are.

Wooden Beds said...

I think cycling in a city is a good deal more dangerous than driving a car unless you're a really bad driver. Perhaps you should practice more than once every ten years? I've clocked up 1.6 million miles in all sorts of vehicles and as far as I can tell I am still alive. Mind you a bike is nicer with no traffic and no rain.

Glenn said...

Wendell Berry said many years ago that it was difficult to live in the country in the U.S. and impossible to do so while being a good neighbor without the use of a motor vehicle.

Some day we will manage with our bicycles and a donkey cart. In the mean time, a beater truck works pretty well.

While I admire those who live in small walkable cities and use bicycles and public transport; your food's gotta come from somewhere.

Marrowstone Island

Andy Brown said...

Now that essay is a masterful work of the curmudgeonly arts. Thank you for a much needed laugh.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Thank you, Andy! Finally, a commenter with a sense of humor! I was starting to get worried.

manray said...

Bravo. Great piece that echoes my sentiments exactly. I live in Austin and for most of the 32 years I have resided here my primary mode of transportation has been bicycle. I have certainly been put in harm's way and faced death on many occasions but if one learns to ride defensively, pursue routes that cars avoid (speed bumps) and break a few laws (yes, required if you want to survive) I have also found that it is safer than driving.

For those folks that lament the suburban/rural existence you do have choices. My wife and I choose to get raped by property taxes in the city (Austin, TX) so that we do not have to live an auto-centric lifestyle. It would be much cheaper for us to buy a place in the burbs or the country but then we become slaves to our cars and life suffers as a result.

It's true that your food has to come from somewhere via fossil-fueled vehicles but that doesn't justify abandoning the idea of driving less. And while 75% or more of the food we consume comes from local CSAs, breweries and bakeries I realize that some rural areas don't have the diverse selection of goods we have in Austin. But more and more places have farmer's markets and if the demand is there they will proliferate.

Miller in Repo Man said it best: "The more you drive, the less intelligent you are."

Unknown said...

That was ever so funny. Thank you. Anytime I see a mp3 playing, texting, nail painting, wanking, slurping convoy, I'll assume you are at the head of it. Fair warning, in IL you get a ticket for riding the left lane for more than a mile. You may have to make a modification to the System in IL. A lane change ever .9 miles, or a center lane option could work. I have yet to get a left lane ticket however. Perhaps more reasearch is warranted.

Ms.Pearl said...

Dmitry, I read your piece this morning just before I left to become a wage slave for yet another day. At the time, there were only two comments. I found the post hilarious on many fronts, but I did not have time to respond until now. Keep it coming! I fully appreciate your extremely dry sense of humor and your wit, and as I was discussing in more than a few conversations today, we NEED humor to tide us over. Most of the people I spoke with would not understand either your, or my, perspective, but they all understand humor as a necessity.

Interestingly, one of the people I talked to today is a highway patrolman, and he is someone I would describe as a gentle giant (although he says others have called him something else). Anyway, he said he doesn't ticket for less than 15 miles over the limit. I usually drive in the slow lane for the same reasons RickG mentioned. I find there is so much less stress (unless some neanderthal takes exception to my slow driving in the right lane. It happens.)

Thank you for the post and the humor. I look forward to Tuesday mornings!


Gary said...

"To drive a car is to acquiesce in the suicidal stupidity of our species."

I love it. As a car free bike commuter, and advocate who has become involved in matters of local traffic safety, this echoed my thoughts exactly.

latheChuck said...

I would like to "second the motion" of the commenter who floats along, 5 mph below posted limit, in the right lane. It leaves a huge gap in front of me for merging traffic, which I hope improves the attitude of drivers entering the highway. In fact, I once watched (through a series of quick glances) a driver run up behind me, then eat a bagel, drink a coffee, make a phone call, and only then zip around me for more Serious Driving.

Gary said...

I had a similar experience to the commenter Rick. Before I sold my car, I spent about the last 6 months of my driving career obeying the letter of the law to a tee. That is never exceeding speed limits and staying a small safe margin below (and staying in the "slow" lane). It was after reading Tom Vanderbilt's book Traffic that I became far more alarmed by the dangers of speed and the designing to manipulate psychology that road engineers employ to make us feel okay with speeds beyond our ability.

It was actually some of the least stressful driving I ever experienced because I did not have to act hardly at all, everyone simply reacted around me.

Since no one actually obeys the speed limits where I live, every one passed me and I never passed anyone. By removing myself from the competition entirely, it was a bit liberating compared to usual one upmanship on the road, and I felt like it was the greatest act of subversion I could do while still piloting a car.

It aggravated some especially impatient people, for them to have to encounter someone adhering to just below the speed limit. Some people would tail gate for sometime in the hopes of pressuring me to go faster, and I would refuse, going my cruise controlled pace undisturbed.

Sometimes it would take some time before someone would take the hint and go around, even when ample space was there to do so, like they were totally dumbfounded to find someone who follows the rules.

When everyone breaks the rules, those that follow them become the rebels.

JWF said...

I've been car free for 10 years now and come to realize how enormous the accumulative savings have been. That and a little appropriate technology can go a long way.


Jayhawk said...

Good piece and for the most part entertaining. one point I had a bit of an issue with was, "I refuse to serve as an enabler for reckless driving or wanton disregard of traffic laws."

I once heard a Georgia Highway Patrol officer answering questions on a talk show point out that it is the responsibility of law enforcement agencies to enforce speed laws, not drivers in the left lane. In fact, he pointed out, if someone wants to speed or drive recklessly, one is obliged by most state laws to allow that driver to do so. He went on to point out that when you interfere with another driver you frustrate them, create impatientence and raise the danger level for yourself, the other driver, and everyone around you.

Butch said...

The problem is that in many U.S. states, small towns-- who have to pay for their own policing-- have asked the cops to ticket for ANY infraction. A friend got a ticket near Moab, UT for 57 in a 55. Another got a ticket for stopping on, not six feet before, the stop line at an intersection of two highways. He stopped there because he could not see around the corner from six feet behind the line.

walksonland said...

I sypathize with driving slower in the right lane, but want to point out that driving MUCH slower than most traffic creates a lot of lane changing, passing, and turbulence around your vehicle. It may be the fault of those other drivers but nevertheless increases risk to all.
My pet peeve is the impatient AH's who dart around you on the right when you wait for a safe distance before moving back in front of a truck you've passed, so as you try to switch back you find them on your rear right bumper. I try to identify the Type A darters behind me and let them by - love to see their taillights.

Ien in the Kootenays said...

I literally laughed out loud, and am passing this on to my car-free, biking and transport using urban offspring.

Squid said...

I hope you don't mind I have linked to your article in Crew.org.nz


Funniest thing I've read in ages, still wiping the tears. Thank you.

KateLovesReading said...

Had to e-mail my sista on this, as she so kindly introduced me to the brilliant Dmitry Orlov; we agreed that ig'nant people would say about this, oh, he's just bitter and cynical, whereas intelligent people immediately understand, and also laugh hysterically. Interesting how as with Dmitri the extreme high intelligence is accompanied by hilarious humour - love him!

Unknown said...

Living in a rural region of France, I have to take the car more often than i would like to. I did a little experiment : I drove the 40 km long commuting between two small towns (no highways) either - like nearly everybody else - at a speed "just over the limit" (90 kmh)and on other days, 10 kmh under the limit. The fact is : it took me just the same time to do the trip ! Traffic lights in the bigger town, slowing while driving through villages and no easy passing, made the "fast" cars and the "slow" ones to gather in the same tiny traffic jams at the end ! Let's relax while driving "slowly" and in a slightly more secure way. It's also less expensive !

David said...

Most annoying are those who insist on tailgating even when you are well over the speed limit already. I can't believe the people who are 10' from my bumper at 70mph - what are they thinking?

I want a bumpersticker that says "Its not NASCAR - its a commute". Why would they speed right up to a red light and then slam on the brakes - wasting large amounts of gas. I try to time the lights to use up most of my momentum before ever having to touch the brakes.

In this depersonalized world our interactions with other drivers are a clue to the personalities involved - many are blatantly AHs. The trend towards ever larger vehicles, some of which already look like armored personnel carriers, mirors the obesity and hostility of the American ego.