My mother was always a great one for getting inexplicably lost within a mile or so of our house. It wasn’t entirely her fault; during the Seventies, my father’s career moved so quickly that we rarely lived anywhere for a complete school year. Mom used to say that she usually had to put our house up for sale right around the time she learned a second route to the grocery store. I don’t know about that, but I can tell you that she rarely made it through a first route without at least one wrong turn. The arrival of GPS-enabled phones has been a life-changing occurrence for her.
An army is always best equipped to fight its last war so I have lived in the same home for the past eighteen and a half years, during which I have acquired a millimeter-precise sense of my surroundings. Here’s an example. On the way to the nearest freeway exit I have to make a left turn at a green arrow. At that point I’m facing a traffic light about a quarter-mile away. It is always green, because these two lights are coordinated. But if I don’t get to that light within approximately eighteen seconds of getting my green arrow, it will turn red for a full two minutes to let in traffic from two crowded side streets, each of which gets a left turn arrow of its own.
I decided a long time ago that I had no interest in ever waiting for that red light. So when I get my arrow I promptly make that eighteen-second quarter-mile dash to beat it. You’re no doubt wondering what the big deal is here. Pretty much every car sold in this country since the demise of the ‘78 Chevette Scooter can run an eighteen-second quarter. My ZX-14 R would be almost to the three-quarter-mile mark at that point. So where’s the problem?
In a nutshell, it’s this: I have to be doing a little bit more than the 45mph you’d normally maintain on a five-lane suburban road in order to make it happen. Which is a fancy way of saying that I have to speed a bit. So what I’m telling you here is that I have to break one traffic law–the speed limit–in order to not break another traffic law–running the red light.
Logically, this makes about zero sense. It’s like stealing a water truck from the next city over so you don’t have to break the law about irrigating your lawn on alternate Wednesdays, or shoplifting a pair of Zanellas so you aren’t arrested for wandering through Central Park without pants. If I can’t find it in my heart to just wait through the red light at the next intersection, why not just wait until there are no cars coming through said intersection and just drive across, the way that motorcyclists have to when our bikes don’t trigger the induction loops that control the lights?
Over the past five years or so, however, I’ve learned that I am far from the only person who has figured out the need to live our local lives one quarter mile at a time. I frequently see the first two or three drivers in that left-turn lane squeak from the start line and hold full throttle until they’re safely through that fickle next green. These are pillars of the community, driving $55,000 crossovers in every shade of the beige-to-silver RX350 rainbow. If that light goes yellow in front of them, the vast majority will clamp down on the ABS and point their Predator noses at the pavement until they’ve come to a halt. They are not the sort of people who run red lights. Yet they do not scruple at going fast and furious to make the green.
After giving this way too much thought while sitting at far too many long-term red lights, I have come to the conclusion that there are three types of traffic laws. There are the laws which make immediate and obvious sense to all rational adults: Don’t run red lights. You might be struck by a car coming the other way.. There there are the laws which would make sense if we had enough information to understand them: The lights that govern entrance to many freeways at rush hour are timed to keep any single entrance ramp from causing a traffic jam that would propagate backwards and bring everyone to a halt. Last but far from least, we have the laws which appear arbitrary, ridiculous, or designed to increase revenue, such as the endless 45mph “work zones” in Pennsylvania where it is absolutely obvious that no work of any sort has been performed for years.
In a perfect world, we would observe the first two categories of law without fail and completely ignore the third as far as our luck and insurance agents would permit. Viewed this way, it’s easy to see why my fellow suburbanites have no sense of guilt about doing 60 or even 70mph down an arrow-straight five-lane road that has no mailboxes or toddlers in the vicinity. It’s also easy to see why they are unwilling to run the red light halfways down that street.
Given a few moments, I could come up with almost limitless examples of similar bifurcated approaches to traffic law. Don’t we all have friends who will drive 150mph in the left lane but who won’t pass on the right under any circumstances? What about the fellow who will call an Uber if he’s had one beer in two hours but who will also cheerfully drive down the shoulder of stopped traffic to make a right at the next signal? I have my own peculiarities: under no circumstances will I lane-split my motorcycle on the freeway but I’ll do it without hesitation in city traffic. I live in Ohio, where both actions are equally forbidden, but the former seems suicidal while the latter seems harmless.
It was once common practice in car magazines to make, and encourage, these sorts of judgments. What was the infamous Cannonball Run, if not a declaration that the 55mph national speed limit was a repugnant Third Kind of traffic law? My predecessors banged the drum early and often for right turn on red–yes, kids, that was once illegal almost everywhere. At the same time, they frequently called for European-style approaches to licensing for both drivers and vehicles. Make everybody do a hundred hours of driver training, force them to own a nearly-new vehicle in near-perfect running order, then bury all the freeway speed limit signs out in the landfill where Atari put all the “E.T.” cartridges! The elitism of it was frankly thrilling for my teenaged self to behold.
Nowadays I’m not so sure about any of it. I continue to believe that speeding is a grey area while red-light running is a black-and-white issue. Unless I’m on my motorcycle, or it’s late at night in a deserted area, or it’s at that one stoplight on my little town’s Main Street where the timer breaks occasionally, thus burdening the north-south road with a permanent halt until it’s fixed. You get the idea. Turn up the resolution of your microscope high enough, and even the sharpest contrast becomes a bit fuzzy.
I’m also more than a little worried about the democratization of traffic-law disrespect that I’ve seen lately in places as diverse as southern California and northern Tennessee. I made a 300-mile freeway trip last weekend where I rarely dipped below 90mph yet I got passed maybe twenty times an hour, often by car/driver combinations that were in no shape to handle anything like a panic stop from triple digits. There were a lot of close calls going on. At one point I seriously considered pulling off at the next exit just to take a breath and relax.
Seven days before, I’d been part of a six-car train doing 130mph down the back straight at Watkins Glen, fighting for position and waiting until after the last sane minute to hit the brakes–but that didn’t bother me nearly as much as seeing a ‘97 F-150 on mismatched bald tires fishtailing around a minivan full of kids with a thirty-mile-per-hour speed differential. Today’s lightly-educated commuter makes Brock Yates look like Joan Claybrook when it comes to speeding in traffic. As Senator Fred Thompson once said, this business will get out of control, and we will be lucky to live through it.
It would be hypocritical of me to ask everyone else to change without being willing to change a bit myself. So I’ll probably ease off a bit on my neighborhood green-to-green sprint. It won’t make a difference to anybody else, but I will feel just that little bit more at peace about the whole thing. If any of my occasional passengers notice the change in my behavior, I’ll just tell them that I’m no longer totally comfortable with the idea that some traffic laws are made to be ignored. Or I’ll say that I’m slowing down a bit so I can keep an eye out for those drivers who aren’t quite as clued-in to the local rhythms. You know the kind I mean. The kids on their temp licenses, the older folks who might have a bit of trouble seeing a grey Honda trying to beat the buzzer. Or the new parent in a new town who gets lost easily and hasn’t yet figured out a second route to the grocery store. Mom, this upcoming Chevette-Scooter-paced quarter mile is for you.