Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Behind Wheel, But Not in Driver's Seat

Rotary along Route 3A in the Boston suburb, Hingham, Massachusetts. Photo by Carol Britton Meyer.

HEAD’S UP: Yours Truly is still in North Louisiana trying to be the best patient advocate possible for my ailing Ma Ma. I arrived a few days after Old Girl was admitted to hospital on 31 January in atrocious shape. While much better, she is not yet well enough for me to return to Gotham where there are at least eight million stories. Dutiful daughter that I am, I remain in the southern branch of the family seat. Happily, I do have stories. And I plan to tell them.

IN the last week or so several people have asked me what it has been like driving again. I had a ready answer because I had been reflecting on it myself.

I haven’t driven since 1999 because I’ve resided in places where I relied on public transport. I’d become so brazenly liberated from driving that my Massachusetts driver’s license expired in 2008. It was unintentional and a second such lapse on my part.

When I returned home to Monroe, Louisiana in early February, I relied on others to chauffeur me around. However, I’d decided before I arrived that I would get a license, reasoning that it would be easier to do so in Louisiana than in New York. And I was required to do the full monty: driving school and vision/written/ driving test. About two weeks ago after some intensive study of Louisiana traffic laws, I earned my driver’s certificate. A really cool thing is that I walked out with the permanent laminated version instead of a temporary paper version, good until the laminated version arrives in the post. I do not plan to allow this one to expire.

I have a couple of observations about driving. First, to paraphrase an old chestnut: Once you learn how to drive you never forget. Behind the wheel, my driver’s instincts returned immediately. It was like flipping on a switch. And the more I’ve driven the stronger my instincts have become. After about five days I was comfortable.

That first day, however, was strange. Here I was behind the wheel of a car, driving down the street. Me! No longer could I stare insouciantly out the window or gawk at interesting people/places/things on the landscape. I had to pay attention. And that meant keeping my eyes on the road in front of me, and the traffic signs, and checking out the activity in the rearview and side mirrors, watching other cars, and cyclists, and any errant pedestrians. It was strange business indeed. And that night. Oh la la! It was too dark and, too bright on Interstate 20. I was in a mild panic because in the darkness the cars sounded like an unseen high tide about to take me out to sea. The white lights reminded me of the foam on the water. It was a bit traumatic.

The second observation is that I am a rather timid driver, paranoid of being involved in an accident. I lay the blame squarely at the feet of outrageous, egregious driving in Greater Boston. I declare, these are some of the worst drivers in the country.

A truncated list of their infractions: Routinely, they speed on highways/byways/country roads/in dangerous curves/during inclement weather/in parking lots – anywhere tires can meet pavement. The noses of cars waiting to enter traffic from driveways and parking lots seem to always protrude onto the road into traffic, requiring drivers in the far right lane to either stop and let them out or veer into the left lane to avoid hitting them. They tailgate and flash their bright lights if the car in front doesn’t speed up or move over to allow them to pass. Red lights mean go. Yellow lights mean go faster, rather than slow down and prepare to stop. Won’t slow down and allow fellow motorists room to change lanes for an exit or turn. Nor allow waiting cars to enter a rotary (aka roundabout/traffic circle). In fact, they’re more likely to speed up to prevent other cars from entering. These drivers often can’t be bothered with signaling a turn – other motorists be damned if their brakes are not in fine working order.

And the worst: A driver who wants to make a left turn against oncoming traffic. S/he does not have the right of way because the left-turn arrow is off. S/he now must wait until the coast is clear before turning. No matter how fast oncoming cars are advancing, no matter if the driver is blowing his horn, flashing his bright lights, giving the finger – s/he is going to turn in front of that car. With almost no time to spare ... If you are me, you are clutching your heart a la Fred Sanford. This I endured for almost a decade. It drove me batty.

In the main, Monroe drivers are a civilized bunch, only guilty so far of a bit of tailgating sans flashing bright lights. Interestingly enough, I should be more worried on the roads here because Louisiana has almost triple the number of fatal accidents of Massachusetts, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. There is no breakdown by city. In 2008, the last year for which statistics are available, there were 912 traffic accidents deaths in Louisiana and 363 in Massachusetts. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Louisiana has a population of 4.4 million and Massachusetts, 6.5 million. Go figure.

Other motorists observing me on the road might say that I drive like an old lady – no offense to old ladies. I do drive the speed limit or a little slower. I also take my sweet time making turns. And when the light turns green, I have a one-second delay before I go, lest I collide with a fellow motorist running a red or yellow light. Perhaps it is out of habit, but when I am approaching a car signaling a left turn from the opposite direction, my back is braced against the seat, both hands strangle the steering wheel. I hold my breath. I say a silent prayer. Squint. Wince. And hope.

So far. so good.

Learn more about National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and general road safety information at


Happy St. Patrick’s Day … To help everyone have the luck of the Irish, some guidance from the mouth of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to the ears of municipal officials:

*Coordinate with local bars to display “Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving” posters on the back of stall doors.

*Coordinate with alcohol retailers (liquor stores, convenience stores) to display “Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving” posters on windows, cooler doors, etc.

*Work with local law enforcement and emergency medical staff to stage a mock car crash, draft signs displaying 2007 St. Patrick’s Day fatality numbers. Invite media and local schools to attend.

*If your community has a St. Patrick’s Day parade, have the police department, community organization, MADD chapter, etc. enter a themed float emblazoned with a “Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving” banner.

*Partner with local companies to pay for/distribute “Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving” coasters, koozies, T-shirts, etc. at bars/St. Patrick’s Day parades.

*Recruit volunteers to dress as leprechauns and distribute “Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving” limerick flyers at bars/parades.

Get more National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tips about being safe on St. Patrick’s Day at

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