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Dog-Eat-Dog or Civility? On the Road and in Life, You Choose

Personal Perspective: There are better ways to drive — and live — than what is evolving now.

Out on the road, incidents of road rage have multiplied, and car fatalities are increasing. Month after month, it seems that fewer drivers are following the rules of the road. This loss of civility that’s evident while driving is not a trivial shift in public behavior. This is an erosion of regard for the safety and well-being of others. Such disregard makes living tougher for everyone.

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Alec Baldwin’s father was my Driver’s Ed teacher in high school. Here I want to talk about the teacher, not the actor. Mr. Baldwin taught us that it was our duty to notice when a car was about to merge onto the freeway. We could slow down to ensure space for the merge, move to the middle lane, or speed up to get past the tight situation. We, the ones already on the freeway, had these choices; the car trying to merge was at our mercy.

I remember my teenage self being startled by this power and responsibility. I had to protect a total stranger. How many times have I been grateful to other drivers who have done this for me — slowed down, changed lanes, or sped up so that I could enter the freeway safely? This awareness of the needs of others is what makes the whole system work. It is possible that the sum of Mr. Baldwin’s teachings, multiplied by hundreds of students over the years, saved at least a few thousand lives.

Yes, we are responsible for each other’s safety. There have always been aggressive drivers who break the rules. But these days I find myself recurrently shocked by something Mr. Baldwin didn’t ever address. As I am about to merge onto a freeway, I have to glance in the mirror to check if the car behind me on the ramp has jumped into the lane of traffic before me and is racing ahead, taking away my turn to merge. This never used to happen. It makes no sense. It is dangerous. How can someone be doing this? What is going wrong that makes so many drivers do this now? The driver who is accelerating at top speed to beat me out of entering the lane is threatening my life to gain a few yards of concrete, losing less than the ten seconds of the time required to let me merge first.

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Rules of the road are based on common sense; two cars can’t occupy one spot on the pavement at the same time. There’s a place in Seattle where two roads converge to enter the ramp to I-5 North, with one having a yield sign. Recently, I have noticed that drivers ignore the yield sign and gun their motors to get to the ramp first. “Might makes right” seems to be the maxim employed by high-powered vehicles driven by people who think only of their own advantage. Right of way? This is apparently an antiquated notion — like turn-taking, getting in line, and watching out for others. Without these conventions of communal behavior, life is going to be rendered “nasty, brutish, and short,” as per the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

My mother-in-law used to say, with English as her second language, “It’s a doggie dog world out there.” I still prefer her version of this saying, especially as it increasingly has become our common reality. How sad it is to be surprised when we encounter a simple courtesy while driving — someone lets us in when we signal a need to get over to the right, or someone waves us into a secure zone they created upon seeing that we weren’t going anywhere without the aid of sheer decency. It costs them only a moment or two, but it grants us the feeling that perhaps life can be more than continually grabbing as much as we can for ourselves.

Our individual actions matter. Decency, too, can spread like a contagion if more of us practice it deliberately and relentlessly. We must reverse the “dog-eat-dog” trend — refuse it! — before those of us who know that it doesn’t have to be this way are gone. Give way to the cheaters. Let them have the road. Fight back with courtesy. Let’s build a huge majority of drivers who wait their turn and are watchful for other drivers’ predicaments, as Mr. Baldwin pleaded. Then we will all be safer and can simply pity the selfish while we count on kindness.

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Copyright: Wendy Lustbader, 2024

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