Heading north on U.S. 19, I noticed a bunch of children buckled up in a big, black sport utility vehicle. Their chauffeur? A distracted driver.
One hand on the wheel, his other typing on a smart phone. Eyes on the road only in short intervals. So when I moved from the middle lane to the right, and in front of him by a few car lengths, I had a feeling I shouldn't. But I did.
I should have known better.
What I didn't know was our lane would come to a quick stop. The driver of the car in front of mine slammed on the brakes. I slammed on mine and checked the rearview mirror. The big, black SUV barreled toward me. I looked away and waited for impact.
I got lucky.
Likely in the last second before his vehicle would have decimated mine, the driver swerved onto the shoulder. While he waited to work his way back into traffic, I made a mental list of what I might ask if I met him:
• Have you driven before?
• How do you sleep at night?
• Are text messages actually more important to you than life, or do you just live like they are?
The opportunities to talk out the blunders that originate behind the steering wheels of moving vehicles rarely arise, but things worth discussing happen daily. In an average week, I spend eight hours driving, and I see a lot: speed demons and slowpokes. People who are entirely unaware, and bullies, who know exactly what they do. People who tailgate, change lanes without checking blind spots and fall asleep at red lights (literally). People who drink and drive, consecutively and concurrently. Drivers who read, write, text, shave and eat.
"Because we drive every day, we stop thinking about it," said Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us). "The automobile is the dominant mode of transportation in the country. We spend increasing amounts of time in it," so we multitask. Sometimes, what we do while we drive points to a discouraging truth: We are self-absorbed.
Self-absorption is putting your wants over somebody else's needs, said Jesse Rice, author of The Church of Facebook. We see it on "Facebook, (in) relationships, in celebrity culture," he said. He also sees it on the road.
"A car is like a little social cocoon," Rice said.
We are isolated — a state in which self-focus comes naturally — in an environment where everyone's safety depends on whether we acknowledge (and act on) other people's needs. The conscious choice to consider how my life impacts somebody else's isn't one we're conditioned to make. But sometimes, doing what takes discipline is better than doing what comes naturally. If drivers learned that lesson, more crashes would be accidents. For now, few of them are.
Calling a crash an accident "implies there's no way this could have been prevented, that it was unforeseeable," Vanderbilt said. Phrases like "drunken-driving accident" are most egregious, he said.
The word "accident" enables negligent drivers. It lets a person create conditions in which vehicles are likely to collide and call it unpredictable after it happens.
"It's ludicrous," Rice said. People surround us "with their 4,000-pound vehicles moving at 60 mph."
Drivers shouldn't take that lightly, Vanderbilt said. A study he cites in Traffic says we only really see what we look for. That's why pedestrians are safer in cities with lots of pedestrians: drivers expect to see them, so they do. It takes vigilance to anticipate the unexpected, but that's difficult when we are self-focused and impossible when there are too many distractions.
"The car was already pretty isolating, but to add the BlackBerry, the iPhone, the personalized entertainment system, the increasing narcissism" is dangerous, Vanderbilt said. "Every day (we) drive and nothing happens, it reinforces" bad behavior. It perpetuates a cycle of self-absorption.
Self-absorption is a human thing, Rice said, but in the American version, "We get what we want, no matter the cost." It defends what we value but, in the process, devalues whatever doesn't seem relevant. What doesn't matter to us, however, matters to someone. When we don't consider that, Rice said, there are consequences on and off the road.
"We say we value unity and ends to poverty and racism. That's just lip service if we're not becoming the kind of people who serve others," Rice said. "The world could be a better place, but that ultimately comes when we are putting others' needs before our own."
When we don't, we learn we can't rely on each other, so we disregard each other completely. And that way of life isn't working.
"People forget that you're part of a system," Vanderbilt said. It isn't all about you.
"Other people on the road aren't obstacles," Rice said. "They're people like me, who are trying to go somewhere."
Their lives depend on our decisions. In an ideal world, all drivers would respect that responsibility. But even in this world, we can do better.
Arleen Spenceley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6235.