I was recently diagnosed with narcolepsy, and I half-welcomed this news, because at last I have a socially acceptable reason for not having a driver’s license. Until this diagnosis, my answer had been, “Because I have no interest in learning.” For many who knew me, this had been ipso facto proof that I was insane. Narcolepsy is a secondary reason–I still have no interest in driving–but at least it’s one that no one would question. (For the record, the State of Ohio doesn’t prohibit people with narcolepsy from driving, but it is still not a good idea. Blindness is the only medical condition that automatically bars a person from driving in Ohio.) The late Art Buchwald must have seen the reactions I’ve received, because he wrote: “People are broad-minded. They’ll accept the fact that a person can be an alcoholic, a dope fiend, a wife-beater, and even a newspaperman, but if a man doesn’t drive, there’s something wrong with him.”
Columbus City Council passed the ban on texting while driving last month, and it went into effect Wednesday. Most of my Facebook friends, all of them drivers, have praised this ban, and I support it as well. When someone is behind the wheel of a car, his/her hands should remain on the wheel at the ten ’til two position, not pushing little buttons on the BlackBerry or the cell phone. Several years ago, several city, county, and state legislatures in the U.S. considered the same ban on cell phones, but the Bluetooth, the headphone-mouthpiece combination (like pilots and telephone operators wear), and car phones with dashboard microphones made it less dangerous–though not entirely safe–for a driver to converse on a cell phone while driving.
This cartoon realistically depicts what the ultimate outcome of texting while driving can be:
When I “came out” as a non-driver, I constantly felt like I was on the defensive, and I righteously quoted Miller, a character in Repo Man: “The more you drive, the less intelligent you are.” Drivers don’t have the monopoly on bad or irresponsible behavior, but the automobile does seem to be the conduit for questionable judgment, even when alcohol is not in the picture.
I lived for two years in Boston, where drivers are total lunatics. The Boston Driver’s Handbook: Wild in the Streets has the right subtitle. As a pedestrian, I felt as though every time I crossed the street, I was living out the video game Frogger. I bore this with equanimity, mainly because I usually slept during the day, when the crazy people were out on the road. This was fortunate, since I lived in Allston/Brighton, which was a magnet for many of the more reckless and maniacal drivers.
It was in Boston where I first learned the concept of road rage. My parents would swear under their breaths at a driver who would cut in front of our car, but it seldom escalated beyond that. Late one summer afternoon, I was on the back of a friend’s motorcycle, en route back to Boston from a retreat at the Unitarian Meetinghouse in Hartford. The 100-mile journey had been uneventful until the Boston skyline was in sight, and we were exiting the Mass Turnpike at Newton. Once you leave the tollbooth, several lanes of traffic funnel down into two or three. I have never been comfortable on motorcycles, so I was already dealing with my stomach churning like a Cuisinart at full speed. A late middle-aged woman in a big car began to move over into our lane, straddling the line. I wasn’t even aware of this until my friend leaned down into her open passenger window, pointed at an opening in front of him, and screamed, his voice hoarse with rage, “Get the fuck over there, bitch!” Minus his motorcycle, or any other motorized vehicle, he was one of the nicest people you ever wanted to know.
I’m sure the woman would have been even more petrified if this had happened a few years later, when the newspapers and the evening news carried stories of freeway shootings, especially in California. (I remember one political cartoon where a motorcycle cop has pulled a man over. The cop has his ticket book out, and he’s writing in it, and he says, “Sir, the reason I stopped you is because you were firing a .44 in a .38-caliber zone.”)
I have never seen extreme road rage first-hand, other than what I described above. The apparent invisibility of the pedestrian has always been a sore point for me, and texting always added a new distraction. I have come close to being hit by distracted drivers several times while in the middle of a crosswalk, when the WALK sign was giving me the right of way. For the most recent encounter, here is the blog entry I wrote when I was still on LiveJournal: http://aspergerspoet.livejournal.com/91004.html
You never hear about pedestrian rage, but I witnessed it firsthand when I lived in Cincinnati. One night, I was at the corner of W. McMillan St. and Clifton Ave., the intersection less than a block from my apartment. A guy about 20 years old was standing at the intersection, waiting for the light to change so he could cross McMillan. The WALK sign came on, he stepped off the curb.
A car raced up Clifton Ave. when he had taken two or three steps into the crosswalk, and came screeching around the corner onto McMillan, missing this guy by millimeters. “Whoops! Sorry!” the driver shouted out his window.
The pedestrian must have had a Hulk-like surge of adrenaline. There was a softball-sized rock sitting near the curb, and he ran after this car, threw the rock, and shattered the back window. When the car came to a halt, the pedestrian cheerily shouted, “Whoops! Sorry!”
I didn’t stick around, because I could tell the kid was absolutely nuts, and for all I knew the driver would come out with a length of pipe or, even worse, a gun. Also, having survived similar encounters, in Cincinnati and elsewhere, I was not totally unsympathetic to the rock-thrower. I didn’t condone what he did, but I could certainly understand it.
When I was at Marietta High School, the driver’s ed teacher (and sometimes the health teacher) would trot out the Bell and Howell 16-mm projector (which I would operate, being the A-V geek in residence) and show the Ohio Highway Patrol’s classic production, Signal 30, made in 1959 (appropriate, since my parents married in ’59–another train wreck in the making), a movie consisting of nothing but gory footage of car accidents. (It’s available in the public domain at http://www.archive.org/details/Signal301959 if I’ve sufficiently whetted your curiosity.) The film was was never much of a deterrent for teenagers who thought death only happened to other people, and who thought they had possessed the recuperative powers of Wile E. Coyote. The movie was too gruesome to become a Rocky Horror Picture Show-type event, but the eye-rolls begins with the opening. (“This is not a Hollywood production. Unlike Hollywood, our actors are paid nothing. Most of the actors in these movies are bad actors and received only top billing on a tombstone. They paid a terrific price to be in these movies. They paid the price with their lives.”)
I don’t foresee a multi-patrol car roadblock with a helmeted and goggled officer shouting through a bullhorn, “Come slowly out of that car, sir, and hold that BlackBerry over your head.” No piece of legislation will cure all careless drivers. There will still be the ones who will try to read a newspaper while driving with their knees, or who think that, even though they started drinking at happy hour and the bars have just closed for the night, they’re still safe drivers. (My hands-down personal favorite was a guy I saw on I-71, who was roaring down the interstate driving with his right hand while trying to hold a badly secured canoe on the roof with his left.)
I don’t assert my “pedestrians’ rights” uniformly. I’ve let a car go by when I clearly and legally had the right of way. Driver’s ed teachers love to say, “The cemetery is full of people who were dead right.” I weigh 200 pounds (much to my dismay), and a car weighs at least two tons, without adding in its velocity. Definitely not a hill I want to die on.
Only once did I consider taking up the soapbox for pedestrian’s right. I went into a downtown Columbus bank to open a savings account, and the bank officer would not allow me to, because I hadn’t produced a driver’s license as identification. I had produced a State-issued ID card, which was exactly the same, except that I wasn’t allowed to drive. (I got it so I’d have legal ID for bars and beer-buying.) I was not applying for a taxi driver’s license, I was opening a bank account.
Here is my current state ID, issued just two weeks ago (I went for a haircut just before, since I didn’t want to immortalize my Cowardly Lion ‘do for the next four years). You Ohioans will see that it is almost identical to a license:
And I’m willing to bet dollars to doughnuts I’ll never be picked up for texting while driving. Texting while walking… I have been guilty of that. I have come close to the comic book nerd accident–nearly hit by a car while crossing the street and reading at the same time.